As the reality of how easily the corona virus (COVID-19) spreads and the anxiety of possibly contracting the disease became a vivid reality in the United States in early March, I couldn’t help but compare our anxiety to the panic and fear that surrounded the polio epidemic of the 1950’s according to the stories told to me by my parents over the years.
1940-50’s and the Rise of a Polio Epidemic
Polio, short for poliomyelitis, was a very serious medical concern during the 1940’s and 50’s; however, it first hit the United States in Vermont in 1894 with 132 confirmed cases. By 1916 it became an annual summer epidemic with no discernible pattern or predictability for which part of the country it would hit. The most severe U.S. epidemic struck in 1949 with 42,173 cases and 2,720 deaths.
Children under five years old were the most at risk of getting the virus which was spread through feces, often due to poor sanitation conditions. Fecal matter could contaminate water supplies where the virus easily spread to anyone coming in contact with the water either by ingestion or using the contaminated water to clean food. Polio could also be passed along from person to person through direct contact.
Only 1 in 200 people infected with the polio virus became symptomatic. Polio is a disease of the central nervous system, and symptoms could vary but often were accompanied by a fever, headache, fatigue, sore throat, and vomiting. Following the early symptoms, patients often complained of muscle aches and pain and stiffness in their back, neck, and/or limbs. These symptoms usually went away after a week or so.
Sadly, though, for patients with a more severe form of the disease, this was only the beginning. Their initial symptoms were followed with more severe muscle pain, a loss of reflexes, loose and floppy limbs, paralysis, and deformities of the bones.
Polio killed thousands of those who contracted the disease, most commonly the result of paralysis of the muscles needed for breathing. For those patients, iron lungs, huge tanks that provided ventilation with negative pressure to help the patient’s respiratory function, were used to extend their lives by pushing oxygen to their lungs, in essence, breathing for them.
A Town in Panic
In the summer of 1950 polio hit very close to home in the small town of Wytheville, tucked away in the mountains of southwest Virginia. The population of Wytheville was 5,513 and in the span of that summer, 189 residents contracted polio which resulted in 17 deaths. The toll was so severe compared to the rest of the country that summer that it was said that Wytheville residents were 100 times more likely to get polio than anywhere else in the U.S. Though Wytheville is a small town, the main downtown street is U.S. Route 11, the primary thoroughfare from Roanoke to Tennessee. A lot of travelers drove through the town on a regular basis, a precursor to today’s traffic just outside the town on Interstates 81 and 77. Wytheville erected signs at both ends of the town limits that told visitors not to stop, but to please come back later.
Both of my parents were young adults living in a small farming community not too far from Wytheville and remembered the fear that was felt throughout the region. Traveling to Wytheville from their community was avoided at all costs and for those who had no choice but to go there, every precaution was taken. Gasoline tanks were filled prior to the trip so there’d be no need to stop for gas, windows were rolled up on air-condition-less cars in the sweltering heat, and only the absolute necessary stops were made while in town.
Many businesses shut down not only in Wytheville, but in nearby towns and communities, and large gatherings were discouraged. Theaters, skating rinks, and ball parks were closed, and people wouldn’t let their children outside to play. As my mom recalls, “People were scared to death they’d get polio.”
Even though there was no proof at the time, there was a wide suspicion that the polio virus might be spread through water. My mom remembers how odd it seemed to drive by Hungry Mother State Park during the peak of the summer and see the beach empty. It wasn’t until a few years later that indeed, it was learned that the virus was spread through feces which commonly infected the water supply.
Five Years Earlier
Locally, the epidemic wasn’t yet on the radar in the summer of 1945 when polio hit even closer to home. My dad’s 15-year-old cousin Bill who lived next door had gotten a thorn in his finger which had gotten badly infected. While it was infected he went swimming in a popular swimming hole with his siblings and cousins and a few day later he woke up sick.
Feverish and with chills, Bill couldn’t get warm even when his mom piled additional blankets on his bed. A few days later he couldn’t move his right arm or his left leg. Unfamiliar with the symptoms of the disease that would become a local epidemic, my great aunt and uncle took Bill to the doctor. The doctor sent them to a hospital in Lynchburg, VA over 150 miles away where he was diagnosed with polio. Even though they never knew for sure, my great-aunt and uncle suspected that Bill had contracted polio from the water at the pond.
Despite the crippling effects from polio, Bill become a very successful businessman who helped develop and organize a large furniture manufacturing company in Greenville, TN. He passed away in 2001 due to complications from post-polio syndrome, a condition that affects polio survivors years after initially contracting the virus.
Vaccines and Sugar Cubes
There was great celebration around the world in 1955 when virologist Dr. Jonas Salk developed a dead-virus polio vaccine, easing the fear of contracting polio.
Soon vaccination campaigns began in cities and small towns across America. A total of four shots were needed to become immune to the polio virus. Vaccination stations were set up in schools, churches, and on street corners – wherever large amounts of people could be administered the shot.
In 1961 Dr. Albert Sabin introduced a live-virus vaccine which was placed on sugar cubes for easy consumption. The oral vaccine replaced Dr. Salk’s dead-virus vaccine. Those who had received the shot could continue on with their four-part vaccination regime by simply switching to the sugar cubes.
Through the dedicated work of Dr. Salk and Dr. Sabin in developing polio vaccinations, polio has been eradicated in the United States with the last case being confirmed in 1979.
Remembering My Own Polio Immunization
I was a fidgety little five-year-old and the line snaking around the high school cafeteria seemed to stand still. My dad promised if I could just hang in there I’d receive a delicious sugar cube as a reward for my patience. The year was around 1962, and my brother and I were in line with our dad to receive one of our four polio vaccinations. As a teacher, Mom had already gone through the series of vaccines and left dad alone to wrangle the two of us on that Sunday afternoon.
Today, yet a different form of the polio vaccine is given to children, but four doses are still recommended by the CDC to give complete protection against contracting the disease.
Similarities of Actions Taken to Prevent Contracting the Polio Virus Versus the Corona Virus
During the Wytheville polio epidemic of 1950, Dr. Pope, the Wythe County health officer, issued a number of precautions to be taken to avoid contracting polio. Today the CDC and the Corona Virus Task Force officials have suggested many similar precautions to help avoid the spread of COVID-19.
Then: Avoid crowds
Now: Avoid crowds
Then: Avoid unnecessary travel
Now: Avoid unnecessary travel
Then: Church services were played over the radio,
Now: Church service are live streamed on social media
Then: Many stores were closed
Now: Non-essential stores are closed
Then: Theaters were closed
Now: Theaters are closed
Then: Hand washing campaigns were initiated
Now: Hand washing campaigns were initiated
Then: People bathed in Clorox and washed hands in rubbing alcohol
Now: People use hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes
Then: Epidemic hit during summer and schools didn’t open until early October
Now: Pandemic hit during school year and schools closed in March and stay closed for the remainder of the academic year
Then: Wore handkerchiefs over mouth and nose
Now: Wear face masks
Then: Advised against closing businesses believing economic needs outweighed the health risk (many businesses closed anyway)
Now: Advised to close all non-essential businesses
The Anxiety is Real
Whether it’s a fear of contracting polio or COVID-19, the anxiety is real. The goal of the various precautions that were put into place was to keep as many people safe and virus-free as possible. Contracting either viruses can lead to devastating long-term implications and even death. Polio has been eradicated in the United States. Let’s hope we can say that about COVID-19 some day…
A special thank you goes to my dad’s cousin Paul who was instrumental in helping to fill in the blanks about his older brother Bill’s battle with polio. Also thanks go to my brother, who confirmed some of my memories and reminded me of other events pertaining to our vaccinations. And finally thank you, mom, who felt the impact of the fear and anxiety that came along with living through the polio epidemic and shared those feeling with me.
- • Do you have any memories of getting your polio vaccination?
- • How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected you?
- • Do you know anyone who as contracted COVID-19? ~ A very good friend of ours spent 6 days in the hospital with double pneumonia and COVID-19. He’s recovered and is doing great today!