America’s Handling of Polio in 1955 - What Can We Learn?

As COVID-19 sweeps across the world and global economies plummet, individuals born after 1955 might think that this pandemic is unparalleled within the realms of human history; but for those aged 70 and older, there are elements of life in a socially distanced world that seem all too familiar.


Polio, or Poliomyelitis, is a disabling and life-threatening disease caused by the poliovirus. It spreads through direct contact with infected persons and eventually spreads to a person’s spinal cord, causing paralysis as well as cognitive problems. The most prominent emergence in the United States was during the mid-1950s, although it has had several resurgences at different points of time, including the early 1800s.


By placing Polio against COVID-19, one can find several similarities - such as infection transmission and treatment to name a few. Both viruses kill by interfering with respiration, either by paralyzing the regulation of breathing or paralyzing the muscles of the lungs.


Although Polio shows a propensity to attack the young and pregnant women whereas COVID-19 targets the elderly, both have deadly effects amongst all ages. Both the poliovirus and the coronavirus rely on “silent carriers”—those showing no immediate symptoms—to spread the disease, inciting a fearful sense of uncertainty. Even the equipment used to treat these diseases share uniformity - Both require respirators, ventilators, and isolation wards.


Speaking of isolation, it’s worth taking a look at the practices of social distancing during the times of Polio and how they differ now in order to understand why we’re handling COVID-19 the way we are.


*Fig 1.1: An image of children during the 1950s, handicapped due to the Poliovirus.


As the first few clusters began to emerge in the 1950s, for the first time in anyone’s memory, social distancing took hold. The city council voted to close theatres, bars, bowling alleys, and the municipal swimming pool. Tourist traffic disappeared. The locals stopped handling money, and some refused to speak on the telephone, believing that germs traveled through the transmission lines. Does any of that ring a bell? COVID-19 has forced us to adopt similar practices, but the extent to which we follow these guidelines varies greatly (unfortunately!).


Of course, economies around the world are almost 10 times more interconnected than they were 50 years ago - any attempt to stop travel, tourism, and general movement is amplified by ten as well. As opposed to simply closing down public areas in order to prevent transmission like it was done in the 1950s, a state’s success is now heavily reliant on timely reopenings as well as the effective management of businesses in crisis.


One thing to keep in mind when comparing the two government responses is the advancements in medicine over time. The great Polio epidemic struck at a time when the federal government wasn’t much involved in the medical problems of the citizenry - the World Health Organization had just formed, and global health education through the general media was a long shot.


As of today, global health awareness and medical knowledge is much more widespread with regards to how to prevent and protect ourselves against the disease; So when we’re repeatedly told to wear masks and wash our hands, why don’t we follow?


In the times of Polio, people listened to prevention advice. The government would pass out flyers to every home in the nation to tell them to keep their kids home. Quoting Holmer, a Polio survivor from DL-Online:

“Holmer says that while some might feel that her parents were being unreasonable in keeping their children isolated during the Polio scare, she didn't see it that way. ‘The girl right across the street from us had Polio, and she was crippled for the rest of her life,’ she added. Today, in a bit of an ironic twist, Holmer says it's her children and grandchildren who are urging her and her husband to self-isolate during the COVID-19 pandemic, for similar reasons.”

*Fig 1.2: An image of a government flyer handed out to the general public during the 1970s, aiming to prevent Polio within infants.


Although the disease’s fatality rate was much higher than that of COVID-19, a lot fewer people got infected before the vaccine was produced - health professional’s statements and science research was highly regarded, and by the mid-1950s it’d be a miracle to see a child playing outside. I suppose the lack of media to inform them of health risks also means a lack of media to provide false information - but that’s a discussion for another day.


The underlying lesson that we need to understand from the Polio epidemic is clear - show the public what happens to those with the disease. In an extremely controversial move, union city councils placed posters of crippled and handicapped children wanting to go play with their peers, yet being ignored and left out. They effectively instilled in the public that this was not something you want to play around with - it’s not going to go away by itself or keep away the rich. While the idea was based on fear, sometimes this is what ensures fewer fatalities.


Likewise, with COVID-19, the global community needs to recognize that people aren’t going to listen through posts on Instagram or lengthy speeches from global leaders - they need to visualize the tragedies of COVID-19 as more than just a number. Not only will this avoid the public being desensitized to the rising number of cases presented in the news every day, but also promote a preventative approach to COVID-19 as opposed to the current lethargic one.


Written by Aiswarya Rambhatla


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