For those a few years older than me, the onset of the summer months, along with summer vacation, was the dreaded “polio season.” You were warned against swimming and over-exerting yourself. The swimming danger was real–contaminated water (or food) is a means of transmitting the virus. Hence, in the warmer weather, there were epidemics every summer and fall. Franklin Roosevelt was a polio survivor, who stood only by means of heavy leg braces, and the support of assistants.
Growing up, I saw kids a few years older than me or adults with braces on their legs or atrophied arms they could not use, and it was explained to me that they were polio survivors. Polio was serious business. As kids, we saw pictures of iron lungs to assist victims in their breathing as paralysis set in. In 1916 over 6,000 people died of polio. While many recovered, and some fully, some had muscle weakness in one or more limbs for the rest of their lives. A good friend is one of these and polio can have effects the arise later in life.
If I remember correctly, none of the children in my classes growing up had polio, and we no longer feared contracting it in the summer. What made the difference was the development of the polio vaccine, announced on April 12, 1955, by Dr. Jonas Salk, at the nearby University of Pittsburgh. The vaccine was rapidly distributed that summer. The Vindicator story reproduced above (dated April 22, 1955) mentions the vaccine would be available to all children 10 and under by August of that year. I would have been one year old at the time and I know I received this vaccination.
Several years later, Albert Sabin developed an oral polio vaccine and sometime in the early 1960’s I remember going up to Chaney High School to get the vaccine. It was the first time I saw Chaney, which I later attended and graduated from. As I recall, we received the vaccine in little cups, although pictures I’ve seen show it being dispensed in a dropper.
Polio was completely eradicated in the United States in 1979. Most countries in the world are polio-free. Only Afghanistan and Pakistan have significant numbers of polio cases with another eight considered “vulnerable”: Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Iraq, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, and the Syrian Arab Republic. Countries where immunization efforts have been disrupted by war are at great risk.
I’m glad that I grew up without having to fear “polio season.” I had a different experience from those five or ten years older than me in Youngstown. I saw the difference this vaccine made in my generation. I respect those who differ, but when a vaccine is developed for Zika, I will get my dose. Let’s hope it comes soon. I can’t imagine how scary this must be for an expectant mom anywhere in Central or South America (or possibly the southern United States). Let’s hope that “Zika season” will soon be history.