A Brief History of Polio: the 1940s to Today

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In the early 20th century, Polio was one of the most feared viruses in the United States.

It plagued families–summer was dubbed “polio season,” and many parents wouldn’t let their children play, go to the pool, or attend public gatherings due to grave concerns about the spread of the virus.

Since the vaccine’s introduction in 1955, there has been a global effort to eradicate the virus.

Many do not know much about Polio, and that’s normal. Thanks to the vaccine, since 1979, there have been no cases of wild polio infection originating in the United States.

But recently, with a case detected in a New York county, Polio has been in the news, leaving many wondering, “what is polio, and am I or my family at risk?”

Polio Signs, Symptoms, and Treatment

Poliomyelitis, commonly known as Polio, is a disabling and life-threatening illness. Caused by the poliovirus, most people have no symptoms or very mild ones.

A few people with the virus develop severe symptoms that affect the nervous system and can lead to spinal and respiratory paralysis and, in some cases, death.

1 in 200 infections leads to paralysis, usually in the legs, and always irreversible. Among those paralyzed, 5-10% die because their breathing muscles become compromised.

Polio is highly contagious and spreads through person-to-person contact through the mouth. It lives in the infected person’s throat and intestines and can contaminate food and water.

About 25% of people experience symptoms, which are typically flu-like:

  • Sore throat
  • Fever
  • Tiredness
  • Nausea
  • Headache
  • Stomach pain

Symptoms usually last between 2 and 5 days and go away on their own without intervention. While the virus commonly affects children younger than 5, anyone who is not vaccinated is at risk.

While there is no cure or treatment, vaccination is an excellent prevention mechanism–before the vaccine, many infected individuals became paralyzed.

The History of Polio

Polio has existed since prehistoric times, but the first clinical description wasn’t until 1789, with the virus formally recognized in 1840.

The first recorded incident of Polio in the United States was in Vermont in 1894, with 132 reported cases. Later, in 1916, a large outbreak struck New York City, leaving more than 6,000 dead.

In the 1940s and 50s, Polio terrified American families as it spread rapidly across the country, often causing disability in children who became infected. In 1952, nearly 60,000 children were infected.

Thousands of children were paralyzed, and more than 3,000 died. The virus did not discriminate–kids of all ages and all socioeconomic backgrounds were at risk.

Some who survived the virus experienced lifelong consequences, including deformed limbs, breathing devices, and respirators.

Famously, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had Polio, diagnosed at 39. While he acknowledged having it, he was never entirely forthright about his experience–many Americans did not know that the president was in a wheelchair due to his paralysis from the waist down.

Even so, Roosevelt’s presidency thrust Polio onto the national stage, leading to his inception of the March of Dimes, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, in 1938.

In 1946, President Harry Truman declared Polio a threat to the United States stating that every American must do everything in their power to fight it – “the fight against infantile paralysis cannot be a local war. It must be nationwide. It must be total war in every city, town, and village throughout the land.”

The Vaccine Race

In 1955, Dr. Salk of the University of Pittsburgh and his colleagues finally developed an effective vaccine, bringing relief to countless families.

Then the most prominent vaccine trial in history, Dr. Salk injected nearly 2 million American children to test the vaccine’s efficacy. The vaccine worked, and Salk immediately became an American hero and household name.

In 1961, Dr. Albert B. Sabi developed a second Polio vaccine; in 1963, a third vaccine was introduced.

With effective vaccines, Polio was brought under control, and by 1979, the virus was eradicated across the United States and many other industrialized countries.

Source: CDC

Today, per the CDC, the vaccine protects more than 99% of children who get the entire course of 4 doses.

Prevalence of Polio Today and New York City Detection

In 1988, the World Health Organization adopted the goal of global eradication of the Polio virus. It was estimated in that year that Polio paralyzed 350,000 individuals annually in more than 125 countries. By 2019, only 125 cases were reported globally, a more than 99% reduction.

Recently, the detection of a Polio case in the United States has citizens grappling for information and public health officials advocating for vaccination and educating citizens about the possible deadly consequences of the virus in the unvaccinated.

Weeks after public health officials announced a case of paralytic Polio in Rockland County, New York, Polio was detected in New York City sewage, “suggesting likely local circulation of the virus.” Since 2013, almost a decade, there had not been a case of Polio detected in the United States.

The virus was detected earlier this year in wastewater samples collected in May, June, and July from neighboring New York City counties, Rockland and Orange County.

In New York City, most children get their polio vaccine as part of their routine childhood immunizations, but some communities have lower vaccination rates than others.

While 79% of New Yorkers have received three doses by age 2, and 86% of city residents, vaccination rates are significantly lower in Rockland County, hovering around 60%.

On virus prevention, New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Ashwin Vasan said, “with Polio circulating in our communities, there is simply nothing more essential than vaccinating our children to protect them from this virus, and if you’re unvaccinated or incompletely vaccinated adult, please choose now to get the vaccine. Polio is entirely preventable, and its reappearance should be a call to action for all of us.”

Preventing Polio Infection

Defense against the virus is simple–vaccination. The CDC recommends that children get four polio vaccine doses: the first at two months old, the second at four months, the third at 6 through 18 months, and the last between 4 and 6 years old.

Since 2000, the vaccine used in the United States has been the inactivated poliovirus vaccine (IPV).

The immunization is given as an injection in the leg or arm. The CDC recommends that incompletely vaccinated adults should get the IPV vaccine, as adults who are not vaccinated are still at risk for the virus.

Beyond immunization, it’s essential to practice good hygiene and wash hands often with soap and water. Hygiene, though, does not replace vaccination.

The fewer people vaccinated, the more likely the virus will spread across the country’s communities, leading to a possible virus outbreak.

The history of Polio is long and arduous, one of extreme loss, inspiring scientific breakthroughs, and essential learnings. What’s known for sure is this–to eradicate Polio, every child in every household across every nation must be vaccinated.


Written by: Emmanuel J. Osemota

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