Remembering the polio epidemic

A polio patient lies in an iron lung in March 1940. When polio weakened muscles used in breathing, the device assisted with respiration.
A polio patient lies in an iron lung in March 1940. When polio weakened muscles used in breathing, the device assisted with respiration.

“I hear you have the Asian flu/How fashionable of you,” reads a vintage get-well card, referring to the H2N2 “Asian” flu pandemic of 1957.

But it could be used today for the COVID-19 pandemic.

And the precautions being taken to slow the spread of COVID-19 are some of same used in the polio epidemic of the 1940s and ’50s. I remember them well.

The epidemic hit my little southwestern Minnesota town when I was transitioning from elementary school to junior high school.

Polio was described as one of “the most serious communicable diseases among children in the United States.” The virus attacked children’s lower extremities, crippling them and leaving them with withered limbs. There was no cure.

“Polio was a plague,” wrote author Richard Rhodes in A Hole in the World. “One day you had a headache, and an hour later you were paralyzed. How far the virus crept up your spine determined whether you could walk afterward or even breathe.”

A summer without fun

Cruelty of cruelties, polio hit hardest during late summer.

And summer vacation from school was sacred to kids like me. Oh, to get up every morning and not have to grab my books and troop off. I could spend the entire day at home or downtown hanging out with girlfriends, engaging in pure fun!

But no. I can still hear my mother saying: “Polio is contagious. You can’t go into crowds.”

And city fathers saw to it there would be no crowds in our town. The movie theatre and the library — places where I spent innumerable summer hours — were shut down. The beach at our local lake was declared off limits for swimming, for it was feared that swimming was the worst transmitter of all.

Hanging out in the drug store, with its refreshing air conditioning, while perusing the latest comic books, was ended by a sign on the door forbidding such activity. The weekly Wednesday-night band concert, which attracted nearly everyone in the county, was cancelled.

Our annual county fair — another cherished summer event that ran for three days and attracted huge numbers of people — also was cancelled.

But even worse, the circus would not be coming to town. We small-town kids would be deprived of the biggest summer thrill of all: the exotic Barnum & Baily extravaganza, with its elephants, trapeze daredevils, jugglers and clowns, all preceded by a parade through town, featuring colorful horse-drawn circus wagons.

And then there was my birthday. It falls in late July. I knew there would be no party outside on our lawn with games and prizes. I’d receive no gifts from my girlfriends. Nor would there be a glorious angel food birthday cake, lovingly and painstakingly prepared by my mother (using a hand beater to whip up 12 egg whites for the batter). I cried.

Fears and quarantines

But I knew what would happen to me if I got polio, so I tried to be brave. Radio newscaster Cedric Adams gave daily updates of the epidemic on his “noontime news” program.

Photos appeared in magazines of children wearing leg braces or confined to wheelchairs. I wouldn’t tell my mother if my leg or arm felt stiff — stiff limbs being a polio symptom — hoping it would just go away.

And then there was the horror of the iron lung. This ugly and confining contraption (a negative-pressure ventilator) was a full-body device.

I saw pictures children in them, each with their head sticking out of one end. It gave me nightmares. I prayed every night I’d never be put in one.

I grew used to the worried look on my parents’ faces. I was a small child and slightly frail. I once overheard them whispering that maybe my small size would make me more susceptible to the disease.

As summer wore on, a pall was cast over our community. The vacant lot by the railroad tracks —where the circus tent would have been staked — remained empty and riddled with quack grass, looking more forlorn than ever.

And, as with the smallpox and chicken pox epidemics, window shades all over town began coming down, signaling someone being quarantined, which I really didn’t understand.

Was it to ward off germs, I wondered? Evil spirits? Surely, the devil must be causing this awful thing that was killing children, or crippling them for life.

Child-size iron lungs helped young ones with polio breathe. Photo courtesy of Hennepin Medical History Center

Finally, a vaccine

But hope came in 1952. Dr. Jonas Salk discovered a vaccine that was tested for its ability to prevent polio. A mass immunization followed. In 1957, the annual number of polio cases in the U.S. was reduced from a peak of nearly 58,000 to 5,600.

Eight years after Salk’s success, Albert Sabin developed an oral polio vaccine. A second wave of mass immunizations led to further decline in the number of cases. By 1961, only 161 cases were recorded in the U.S.

According to Mayo Clinic, the last case of naturally occurring polio in the U.S. was in 1979. Today, despite a worldwide effort to wipe it out, poliovirus continues to affect children and adults in parts of Asia and Africa.

What goes around comes around.

One can hope such a cure for COVID-19 soon will “come around.”

Carol Hall lives in Woodbury. She’s a longtime freelance writer, a University of Minnesota graduate and a former Northwest Airlines stewardess. Send comments and questions to [email protected]