What We Learned Today: Polio: A Mostly-Forgotten Disease

A polio vaccine poster from 1963. Image in the public domain. Content Providers(s): CDC/ Mary Hilpertshauser
A polio vaccine poster from 1963. Image in the public domain. Content Providers(s): CDC/ Mary Hilpertshauser

It was only our parents’ generation, not that long ago in the scheme of things, that polio (poliomyelitis) was a constant worry. (Though I’m sure some of our readers are young enough that for them it was their grandparents’ generation.) Parents would worry about their kids playing in contaminated water, catching polio, and then worry over the subsequent treatment, if the children survived.

Polio is a water-borne illness that can cripple its victims, or even cause death. Though it has been around for hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of years, it rose to epidemic proportions in the late 1800s and first half of the 1900s, and affected thousands. This is because, as sanitation was improved, fewer people were exposed to the polio virus as infants. It seems that the younger someone is when they contract the virus, the easier it is for them to fight it off. So people were contracting it as older children, or as adults, with more serious results.

At first, doctors weren’t sure how it was transmitted. Cases of polio rose each summer (when the kids were out of school and played out of doors more often). Kids were the most frequent victims, but adults could contract the disease as well. Whenever people would drink contaminated water, or even swim in the water, they could potentially contract polio. It was also transmitted by contact with a person with the disease, or contact with food that either contaminated water or a polio victim.

Not all cases of polio were deadly or debilitating. In fewer than 2% of the cases does the deadly paralysis come into play. For those victims where the muscles required for breathing were affected, they would be put in a machine called an iron lung, which helped them to breath. Some stopped their iron lung treatment after days or weeks, but some were in them permanently.

For those that contracted polio but survived, many had follow-up treatments and surgeries, and often required braces, crutches, or more. The best way to treat patients was argued over, with Sister Kenny, a nurse from Australia, revolutionizing treatment, proving that stretches, heat, and muscle use was much more effective than immobilizing limbs.

When another, larger, polio epidemic hit the United States in 1952, parents kept their kids away from pools, playgrounds, and social gatherings, in the hopes of protecting their kids from contracting the disease. Still, more than 3,000 people died from polio that summer, out of almost 58,000 who contracted it.

After many years and much research, a polio vaccine was finally developed. The work of Jonas Salk and countless others finally successfully amounted to a vaccine to prevent people from getting polio in the first place. Extensive testing was done in the early 1950s on Salk’s vaccine, and soon millions of children were receiving doses. An oral version of a polio vaccine was also developed (no needles!) thanks to work by Albert Sabin, and is often the immunization given in parts of the world today. While we have polio under control in this country, not having a “wild” case of it since 1979, other parts of the world are still affected. But we have gotten the number of cases far down below 1000 worldwide. Let’s keep up the effort, and eradicate this disease.

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4 thoughts on “What We Learned Today: Polio: A Mostly-Forgotten Disease

  1. My grandfather had polio as a boy (maybe around 1930?), and lost the use of his right arm. He was one of the lucky ones – the idea of being confined to an iron lung just horrifies me.

    It frustrates me that we’re so close to eradicating polio, but the political situation in countries where it’s still endemic is making the necessary mass vaccinations difficult-to-impossible – meanwhile when the Salk vaccine was first available, parents couldn’t get their children vaccinated fast enough!

  2. Unfortunately eradicating polio may not be as easy as vaccinating everyone. An article in the August 2013 Scientific American describes a serious challenge to global eradication and even to eradication in developed countries;

    “Polio’s latest redoubts are “chronic excreters,” people with compromised immune systems who, having swallowed weakened polioviruses in an oral vaccine as children, generate and shed live viruses from their intestines and upper respiratory tracts for years. Healthy children react to the vaccine by developing antibodies that shut down viral replication, thus gaining immunity to infection. But chronic excreters cannot quite complete that process and instead churn out a steady supply of viruses. The oral vaccine’s weakened viruses can mutate and regain wild polio’s hallmark ability to paralyze the people it infects. After coming into wider awareness in the mid-1990s, the condition shocked researchers.”

    From the article “Hidden and Dangerous”, Scientific American, August 2013


  3. I was diagnosed with polio in 1992, receiving it from the live oral vaccine at my 6-month checkup/immunization.

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