Imagine you are the parent of school-aged children in the summer of 1950. With the school year completed, summer beginning, and fireworks illuminating the skies of early July, a new worry appears — how to protect your child from polio. Swimming pools may not merely be an oasis on a hot summer day; they could also be a breeding ground. Movie theaters and other communal gathering spots are more than places for leisure; they’re now places to avoid. Some are even shut down. Candy is rumored to be a cause. Maybe the crowding of the cities is bad, and you consider sending your kids to the country for the summer to avoid densely populated areas. Every sore throat, fever or stiff muscle triggers fear. How is this disease spread, and how can it be prevented?
For parents of children in early to mid-20th century America, this was a reality. During the height of the polio threat in America (1900-1950s), these concerns were all too real. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between 1950 and 1953 there were approximately 119,000 cases of paralytic polio in the United States and 6,600 deaths.
Polio, a highly contagious virus, affected people differently. Most of those infected were asymptomatic; others had mild symptoms such as sore throat, fever, stomach pain or vomiting. Yet for some it caused paralysis and sometimes, death.
While polio could occur during the school year, outbreaks peaked during the summer months, and children were the most susceptible.
Many aspects of the disease — like its transmission and prevention — took time to figure out. However, while reliable information about how the disease spread was available, there was no shortage of fear. The uncertainty, coupled with the devastating effects of paralytic polio, led to frustration and panic.
The American polio story has a happy ending. Dr. Jonas Salk’s inactivated polio vaccine (IPV) was deemed “safe, effective and potent” in 1955, and rates of polio began to drop. By the 1960s, an oral polio vaccine, made by Albert Sabin, became available. In less than 25 years, due to the effectiveness of these vaccines, the United States had virtually eliminated polio. Today, we still immunize against polio because people traveling to and from other parts of the world can be infected and reintroduce the virus in this country.
Global polio eradication efforts began in 1988. In 2017, just 22 cases of wild poliovirus infection were reported globally. That was a decrease from 37 cases in 2016. By the end of 2017, polio was endemic in just three countries — Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan. Although significant progress has been made, polio eradication has proven difficult. Scientists and public health officials around the world continue to work on snuffing out this crippler of humanity.
While current eradication efforts do not have a U.S. focus, there is a “uniquely American” theme to polio vaccine discovery as described by author David M. Oshinsky in the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Polio: An American Story. So this month when we commemorate the birth of America and celebrate our freedoms, let us celebrate the band of doctors, scientists, public health officials, philanthropists, and ordinary Americans who came together to give parents of today one less thing to worry about during the summer.
Editor’s note: For another story about a vaccine-preventable disease that at one time manifested itself disproportionately in the summer, check out the news and notes section.