Polio Returns to America

Polio has returned to New York.

A home-grown case of polio myelitis has appeared in Rockland County, north of the city.   It is the first in the United States since 1979 when the disease was wiped out in America. Since then, the occasional case which appeared belonged to a traveler who arrived here with the disease.  The last one was a decade ago.

This week it was announced that the polio virus has been found in New York City’s wastewater in another sign that the disease is quietly spreading among unvaccinated people, health officials said Friday.

Polio virus is usually spread from person to person through infected fecal matter entering the mouth usually by food or water containing human feces and less commonly from infected saliva.   Those who are infected may spread the disease for up to six weeks even if no symptoms are present.   The disease may be diagnosed by finding the virus in the feces or detecting antibodies against it in the blood.   The disease occurs naturally only in humans where it establishes itself in the intestinal tract and begins to kill nerve endings.  Many people with the disease showed minimal gastro-intestinal symptoms or no symptoms at all yet could transmit the disease to others.

That the virus is in waste/sewer water, flushed down from toilet bowls is an indication that the disease is here among the unvaccinated.

The unvaccinated are “free” of course to reject vaccination; it is their right to control their own bodies – unless of course they happen to be pregnant and want an abortion in say, Indiana.

Well Polio is not covid.  It ain’t no “flu” that you have for a week and get over.

To most of the population alive today COVID-19 is a new, first-time experience.  But for those of us approaching four score or older it seems strangely familiar.  For old timers it is a sort of deja-vu; you see, we have been through this before.

Like a horror movie, throughout the first half of the 20th century, the polio virus arrived each summer, striking without warning. No one knew how polio was transmitted or what caused it. There were wild theories that the virus spread from imported bananas or stray cats. There was no known cure or vaccine.

It was the scourge of the first half of the 20th century.  For decades swimming pools and movie theaters closed during polio season for fear of this invisible enemy. Parents stopped sending their children to playgrounds or birthday parties for fear they would “catch polio.”

In 1952, the number of polio cases in the U.S. reached 57,879, resulting in 3,145 deaths. Those who survived this highly infectious disease could end up with some form of paralysis, forcing them to use crutches, wheelchairs or to be put into an iron lung, a large tank respirator that would pull air in and out of the lungs, allowing one to breathe.

And the disease mainly targeted kids and had been around from time immemorial.

Ancient Egyptian paintings and carvings depict otherwise healthy people with withered limbs, and children walking with canes at a young age.  It is theorized that the Roman Emperor Claudius was stricken as a child, and this caused him to walk with a pronounced limp for the rest of his life. Perhaps   the earliest recorded case of poliomyelitis is that of Sir Walter Scott. In 1773 Scott was said to have developed “a severe fever which deprived him of the power of his right leg.”

Serious summer epidemics began at the turn of the 20th century in America.  In the epidemic of 1949, 2,720 deaths from the disease occurred in the United States and 42,173 cases were reported.  Between 1951 – 55 over 79,000 Americans were left paralyzed by the disease.

Treatment of the paralysis of withered limbs ranged from electro-therapy (stimulating the muscles to contract via electric shock) which was largely ineffective.  The muscle was fine. if atrophied, but the nerves carrying signals from the brain were gone.

Hydro-therapy and warm baths provided relief but cured no one.  Franklin D.  Roosevelt contracted the disease which left him in a wheelchair most of the time.  For his public appearances he donned massive metal braces which allowed him to stand erect behind a podium.  Millions of Americans didn’t know he couldn’t walk.

Still without a vaccine or treatment Polio was considered one of the most frightening public health problems in the world as epidemics were increasingly devastating in the post-war United States. The 1952 U.S. epidemic was the worst outbreak in the nation’s history, as 3,145 people died and 21,269 were left with mild to disabling paralysis, most of its victims being children. The “public reaction was to a plague”, said historian William L. O’Neill “Apart from the atomic bomb, America’  s greatest fear was polio.”  As a result, scientists were in a frantic race to find a way to prevent or cure the disease.

Dr. Jonas Salk was born in New York City in 1914, attended City College, New York University School of Medicine and interned at Mt. Sinai Hospital.  He decided to be a medical researcher rather than a practicing physician.

In 1947, Salk accepted an appointment to the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. In 1948, he undertook a project funded by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis to determine the number of different types of poliovirus. Salk saw an opportunity to extend this project towards developing a vaccine against polio, and he gathered a research team and devoted himself to this work for the next seven years.

Rather than work with the dangerous live virus, Salk decided to use the safer ‘killed’ virus, instead of the “weakened”  ones used contemporarily by Albert Sabin, who was developing an oral vaccine. After successful tests on laboratory animals, on July 2, 1952, assisted by the staff at the D.T. Watson Home for Crippled Children, Salk injected 43 children with his killed-virus vaccine. He included his own healthy son in the first test group..   It was safe.

Testing was expanded to other children at risk.   Then it was administered to 1.2 million school children volunteered by their parents  – the “polio volunteers.” Such was the fear in America of the disease.

It was safe and effective.  The March of Dimes mobilized 7 million more polio volunteers and received contributions for one hundred million Americans to finish the research.

News was made public of the vaccine’s success on April 12, 1955, and Salk was hailed as a “miracle worker” and the day almost became a national holiday.  An immediate rush to vaccinate began around the world, with countries beginning polio immunization campaigns using Salk’s vaccine, including Canada, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, West Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Belgium.

Mom took me and waited in line so I could be vaccinated that summer.   I was 13 years old.  There hasn’t been a case of polio in America since 1979 – until this week.

Dr. Jonas Salk became a national hero.  When asked later in an interview with Edward R. Murrow “Who holds the patent?” on the vaccine Salk replied

“No one holds a patent.  How can you patent the sun?”

Pay attention.  This disease will cripple your kids for life.  If they are not vaccinated against polio, don’t wait.  This vaccine has been around since the 1950s and is perfectly safe.




About toritto

I was born during year four of the reign of Emperor Tiberius Claudius on the outskirts of the empire in Brooklyn. I married my high school sweetheart, the girl I took to the prom and we were together for forty years until her passing in 2004. We had four kids together and buried two together. I had a successful career in Corporate America (never got rich but made a living) and traveled the world. I am currently retired in the Tampa Bay metro area and live alone. One of my daughters is close by and one within a morning’s drive. They call their pops everyday. I try to write poetry (not very well), and about family. Occasionally I will try a historical piece relating to politics. :-)
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17 Responses to Polio Returns to America

  1. I remember the young daughter of a missionary, returned from Africa, walking with one leg in a metal brace. I was just a child, and I was horrified at how devastating and permanent it was for her. And she was lucky — for some it paralyzed their lungs. We thought we had eradicated polio, but we haven’t.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. beetleypete says:

    Two days ago, the East London health agency reported Polio virus found in the sewage system in the area. (It is routinely checked) The government is now offering vaccination to all children (in London) aged from 1-9. However, take-up has proved to be ‘poor’, as a large percentage of the population in those districts is made up of ethnic minorities from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India. Traditionally, they do not have their children vaccinated against anything. So it is possible we may see an outbreak in the capital city.
    Julie and I were talking about Iron Lungs, and kids with leg braces. But we both had our childhood Polio vaccine administered as liquid on a sugar cube. In fact, when I joined the London Ambulance Service as an EMT in 1979, I had to have a Polio booster, and that was also given on a sugar cube. Now they inject the vaccine with a hypodermic, which appears to be what you had as a child.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Gosh, this is scary. My family are vaccinated against everything possible including cholera. I don’t really understand why people don’t want to vaccinate when vaccinations have changed the world for the better.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Don Ostertag says:

    Thankful there wasn’t a bloc screaming against the vaccine.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. GP says:

    We allow immigrants in unchecked, plus we have a whole generation that doubted the validity of getting their children immunized – and we’re surprised this happens. Just look at that poor child!!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I vividly remember not being allowed to go the public swimming pool in the summer and being kept home and away from other children because of the fear of polio. And I remember getting the Salk vaccine (more than once, maybe yearly?) and then standing in line to get the Sabin doses on sugar cubes. And I collected money for the March of Dimes. You are quite right, this is not a disease anyone should risk getting.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Lauren says:

    I remember getting the sugar cube at school. The doubters are still out there sadly.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Reblogged this on silverapplequeen and commented:
    It’s hard to believe that these diseases, that were once eradicated, are coming back, because of “freedom”.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Jennie says:

    When the news hit yesterday my memories came flooding back- standing in that long line to get the vaccine in 1955, my dear friend’s mild case of polio, Hubby’s Aunt Mary in leg braces, and the summer of no swimming. I was trying to remember when the last case was reported, and you say it was 1979. Polio is scary, it cripples for life.

    Liked by 1 person

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