Polio: We have been here before.

by Thomas McWhorter, 05/01/2020, Traverse City, Mi

Adult Category


Polio: We Have Been In this Position Before. In this time of the COVID-19, it is hard to remember that we have lived through other world pandemics in our lifetime. Until fairly recently one of the most feared diseases was polio. Poliomyelitis (a.k.a. infantile paralysis) killed and paralyzed hundreds of thousands of children each year. After the development of several successful vaccines, this horrific disease was brought under control and is almost eradicated worldwide.

In America, summer was “polio season”, as children were out of school and the weather was conducive to children playing outside and in groups. Polio is a very contagious disease that can be passed from person to person. Parents were afraid to let their children out of the house in the summer and were especially wary of playgrounds, civic pools and beaches. Children stricken with polio faced a lifetime of disability (i.e. crutches, braces, orthopedic shoes, etc.). In the most severe cases children had to be placed in the “Iron Lung” to assist in their breathing due to paralyzed lung muscles.

Scientists and doctors worked for many years in order to perfect a vaccine. The first successful and easily manufactured inoculation was the Salk vaccine, perfected by Dr. Jonas Salk. The Salk vaccine became readily available to the public in the mid-1950’s. This vaccine was made from dead viruses and administered via injection. The Sabin vaccine was later perfected by Dr. Albert Sabin and became readily available in 1961. The Sabin vaccine, manufactured from live but weakened virus, is an oral vaccine (e.g., sugar cube). There are pros and cons for using each method of vaccination.

Personal Experience: I remember our mother talking about the polio vaccines but she was leery initially because the first manufacturing process was flawed and children developed polio from the injection! I do not think that my sister and I received the Salk vaccination, although I do remember our mom taking my sister and me to the doctor’s office for what I think must have been the Sabin vaccine circa 1961. I associated going the doctor’s office with getting “shots” which were scary back then. Large needles and syringes, drawn up dramatically from a bottle held by the nurse or doctor. The shot was in either in the shoulder or the butt, it hurt either way and knowing that it was coming was the worst part. Although when our mom said that all we had to do was eat a sugar cube I was greatly relieved.

I remember the nurse bringing in a tray that held a soufflé cup that contained two sugar cubes; these cubes had a suspicious red dot in the top that I figured was the actual medicine. I just needed to pick up each cube and eat it! I think that I cautiously bit into the cube to see if it was nasty, but it wasn’t. I did wonder why someone had not thought of this way of taking medicine before.

The purpose of this story about polio is to emphasize that there have been many terrible infectious diseases that were eventually conquered. If the past is any indicator of the future, a vaccine will be discovered to address COVID-19! We just need to keep our wits about us until that time comes.

~ Tom McWhorter