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Polio: The Forgotten Scourge

By Edited Nov 29, 2013 1 0

Polio is a devastating disease. In the 1950s United States, parents feared summers because of polio infections increased, and swimming pools and movie theatres closed because of the disease. People avoided places where crowds gathered. There were many theories about what caused the disease. One such warning was something in peach skins caused polio, and people were cautioned not to eat them. The terror was go great, no theory was too ridiculous to ignore.

Polio Fears

The terror the disease caused cannot be underestimated. The only thing more feared at that time was the atomic bomb. The population of the United States in 1953 was approximately 154,877,889 and the new cases of polio were 85,000 for that year. Other diseases were more lethal, but polio attacked mostly children, and pictures of crippled children or wards filled with iron lungs got people’s attention. There was a big drive to find a treatment for polio.

Polio was a crippling disease, which if it wasn’t lethal, could leave a person disabled for life. It affects the nervous system and causes paralysis. It could leave people to spend the rest of their days in an iron lung, a large round cylinder with a pump that assists breathing, because the individual doesn’t have enough muscle strength to breathe. An iron lung sounds somewhat like Darth Vader breathing. If a person did recover, the disease could return post polio, take away their muscle mass, and confine them to crutches, braces or a wheel chair.

Infant's iron lung.

It was also known as poliomyelitis and infantile paralysis, and not restricted to the young. Franklin D. Roosevelt was infected as a young man. Roosevelt had therapy and eventually was able to walk with the assistance of braces and crutches. Walking is a painful ordeal for him.

Types Of Polio

Paralytic polio comes in 3 forms. Spinal  is the most common. It causes paralysis in the arms, legs and the muscles for breathing. Bulbar polio affects cranial nerves that control hearing, tasting, swallowing, and smelling. Bulbarspinal polio is a combination of the two.

Polio Symptoms

For mild polio, the symptoms include headache, nausea, fever, and vomiting. The symptoms for non-paralytic are the same, but include fatigue, neck and back stiffness, and muscle pain. The symptoms for paralytic polio include tremors, fever, muscle stiffness and weakness, difficulty swallowing, and constipation.

Treatment For Polio

 When Dr. Jonas Salk found the polio virus and vaccine for it in 1955, he was regarded as a hero. He found a cure for the most devastating and terrifying disease in the United States. Parents gladly had their children take the vaccine.

Dr. Alburt Sabin began testing the oral vaccine in 1957 and it was licensed in 1962. This vaccine was given on a sugar cube with a drop of the vaccine on it. Even though someone had taken the Salk shot, they could take the Sabin vaccine.

Modern Polio

Now, infantile paralysis has been eradicated in most of the world, but is found in 4 countries, Nigeria, Pakistan, Afghanistan and India. One of the programs of the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation is to eradicate it completely. Their foundation is working with agencies and governments to finish off the disease. They have run into superstition and opposition about the vaccine in that some think it causes sterility or other problem that aren't true. With education, the foundation has been able to make progress. If treatments get cut back, polio gains ground in these areas. Untreated populations could cause polio to become a worldwide terror again by allowing it to infect those who are unvaccinated.

Polio: An American Story 

David M. Oshinsky wrote a book, Polio: An American Story that covers the vaccine history of the disease. It covers the animosity between the different researchers, their theories and the politics involved to develop the cure for polio. Oshinsky covers Franklin Roosevelt’s role in the March of Dimes, a program to fund a cure of the disease. It is an overview of polio and the time it fourished.

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