Call it déjà vu, a flashback, or even a jogged memory — whatever you will — but I remembered why all these Covid precautions seem so familiar.
We have been through this before. I am not talking about the century-old influenza epidemic that has been so publicized but the polio epidemic of my childhood. Remember?
Poliomyelitis was first described clinically in 1789, and the first major outbreak in this country was in 1894. In 1916, more than 27,000 cases and 6,000 deaths were attributed to the disease, and its three separate strains were discovered in 1930.
It was a fearsome predator primarily because its victims were mostly children and younger adults. Causing an inflammation of the brain and spinal cord, polio led to paralysis of limbs, throat or chest and inability to breathe without a ventilator.
President Franklin Roosevelt, himself a polio survivor, established the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis in 1938. That eventually became the March of Dimes, funding the search for a cure. Our own University of Kansas became one of the four major research centers. Dr. Herbert Warner led the work there in the Virus Research Laboratory. That lab became a key collaborator in the vaccine evaluation program.
In the 1940s, victims’ names were listed in daily newspapers, and the newsreels at the movies carried the stories of iron lungs and Sister Kenny, the British nurse whose treatment methods offered a ray of hope. I was one of the children in the theater, watching the Saturday double feature of a western and another “B” movie and mesmerized by the news.
Most of us were frightened by two after-effects of World War II — the prospect of nuclear warfare and the threat of polio, which was intensified by warm weather. Oddly, we children often knew more than our parents did. They had newspapers and radio, but we had those newsreels and the immediacy of film.
Here in Miami County, three polio-related deaths occurred in Osawatomie in 1946. The victims were aged 21, 10 and 9. Others, like 6-year-old Larry Dickey, were treated in iron lungs and survived.
Pat Alexander of Paola, writing in “Life on Bull Creek,” recalled that, “hiding in the background was the specter of polio. We knew not from where it came, how it chose its victims or how to prevent and cure it...it took the life of one of my friends, Bill Brown...gone without warning or reason. You had to be there to know the fear and terror that every summer held.”
Polio raged on, reaching its peak in 1952. It was another time of mass closings and quarantine, affecting commerce, travel, recreation and schools. Like today, people claimed that public safety rules conflicted with individual rights. Unlike the present, those same people cooperated for the sake of “the common good.”
March of Dimes fundraisers were constant. Jars for donations stood in every store and schoolroom. Farmers were asked to donate one or two bushels of corn to fund drives and, finally, on April 12, 1955, Dr. Jonas Salk announced a safe and effective polio vaccine. The town of Protection, Kan., out near Dodge City, was the first in the nation to be fully vaccinated. Nationally, the incidence of disease fell 90 percent within two years.
Dr. Albert Sabin perfected his oral vaccine in the early 1960s. In May, 1962, Dr. Jack Rowlett supervised a mass inoculation for polio using that vaccine. The crowd of Miami County residents receiving it filled the Paola High School gym.
The United States has been polio-free since 1979. Is it any wonder that we now hope for a “safe and effective” vaccine against this novel coronavirus? Don’t need old newsreels to think about that.