Wednesday, March 25, 2020

An Epidemic of Another Sort

With news of the COVID-19 Coronavirus dominating the television, newspapers, magazines, and just about every discussion in this nation, I thought maybe we’d talk about a different epidemic. (Actually, since my novella, A Malleable Heart, deals with a young woman afflicted by the illness described in this post, I have been planning this blog post since last fall—long before we knew this current pandemic would hit the world. So I find the timing humorous. But…I digress). What epidemic am I talking about?

Poliomyelitis, or better known as Polio. It was also known by the name of “Infantile paralysis.”

What is Polio?

Polio is a disease caused by the Poliovirus, and it is passed from person to person via infected fecal matter. (Yes, you read that right. Let’s all say it together—EWWW, GROSS! Consider this another great reminder to wash your hands often! LOL) With our easy access to soap and water, hand sanitizer, and other ways to disinfect our hands and homes today (at least prior to this current craziness), perhaps it seems odd to think that so many people could become infected from fecal matter so easily. However, keep in mind that in 1940, only about half of all American homes had hot piped water, a flushable toilet, and bathing/showering facilities inside their homes. Even in 1960, about 25% of homes lacked such luxuries. So while it’s rather gross to think about, it’s understandable how this particular illness could be spread at that time in history. 

© Jennifer Uhlarik
Among Polio victims, upward of 70% of cases hit people with normal immune systems. In those instances, people were asymptomatic, even after being exposed. In about 25% of cases, the infected person experienced mild symptoms like sore throat, fever, influenza-type symptoms, and perhaps some nausea, vomiting, and other gastrointestinal disturbances. Usually, these symptoms resolved within a week. By and large, this was how most Polio patients experienced the illness. However, there was another element to the sickness that, thankfully, affected a much smaller part of the population. 

In 5% or fewer cases, patients developed some involvement in the central nervous system. That could present in a two different ways: with paralysis and without it. If a patient’s nervous system was involved without resulting paralysis, the symptoms included an inflammation of the meninges (the protective covering around the brain and spinal cord). This hit with fever, head, neck, abdominal, and/or extremity pain, irritability, and lethargy.

Nurses attending to Polio victims who were placed in Iron Lung machines
to assist them with breathing issues.
That left about 0.5% of Polio patients who experienced paralysis of some variety. Of this small pool of cases, 79% of the affected patients were hit with “spinal Polio”, were once-healthy limbs (usually the legs) suddenly weakened and withered, becoming floppy and sometimes totally paralyzed. In fewer instances, the person experiencing paralytic Polio would be affected with “Bulbospinal Polio,” in which the extremities and the respiratory tract (including soft palate and pharynx) was affected. In these instances, patients would have difficulty or inability to swallow and/or breathe, as well as seeing their limbs wither and weaken. Fewest of all cases were the “Bulbar Polio” cases, where patients were affected in only the respiratory tract.

In those affected by paralytic Polio, the death rate was 2-5% in children and 15-30% in adults—this due to how it affected their ability to breath.

History of Polio

Egyptian art depicting a priest with withered leg,
possibly due to Polio.

If you know American history, you are probably aware that in the 1950s, America was hit hard by this disease. However, that wasn’t the start of Polio. Rather, Polio dates far into history, even though it wasn’t known by that name. For instance, there are some ancient Egyptian drawings that date from 1350 B.C. (or older) that depict an Egyptian priest with a withered leg. Is it known whether the man pictured actually had Polio? No, but the carving looks much the same as those known to be affected by this disease.

In 1789, a British doctor began documenting the symptoms of this then-unfamiliar disease, which he named a “debility of the lower extremities.” By 1840, a German doctor discovered that this disease might very well be contagious, but it wasn’t until the early 1900s when doctors postulated that the cause of Polio might be a virus. Outbreaks in 1894 and 1916 brought about great concern about this disease and furthered the research done on it—and within about 15 years, more researchers and doctors were able to identify the types of Poliomyelitis. In 1938, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (which later became the March of Dimes) began with the hope of raising money for research on this deadly disease.

March of Dimes poster

During the summer of 1916, an outbreak of Polio occurred in Brooklyn, NY. Panic became widespread. Unlike our current COVID-19 which has hit every state in our nation, that particular outbreak was centralized in one area, so thousands of people from the affected communities fled their homes and ran to the mountains or vacation areas in hopes of escaping the illness. Those who stayed witnessed the closings of many businesses, movie theaters, swimming pools, beaches, as well as cancellations of meetings and conferences—much like we are today. From that summer forward, an outbreak of Polio occurred each summer in the United States, often confined to individual cities or geographical regions. The worst was the nationwide outbreak that occurred in the 1940s and 50s. For instance, in 1952, roughly 60,000 children became infected with Polio and over 3000 died from this dreaded illness.

Dr. Jonas Salk,
inventor of Polio Vaccine

Thankfully, in 1955, Dr. Jonas Salk developed the first vaccine to prevent Polio, and the tide began to tip in favor of ending this illness once and for all. There is no cure for Polio, so the vaccine was the best way to end it. In 1988, the World Health Organization, UNICEF, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, and Rotary International banded together to form the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. They had the intention of vaccinating children worldwide to get rid of this disease forever. By the middle of 1994, the Americas were certified to be Polio-free, and more countries have continued to be added to that list as time has moved on. As of this date, only two countries in the world (Afghanistan and Pakistan) still have not been certified as Polio-free.

I hope this look into history and the eradication of Polio might inspire hope as our nation and the world faces the COVID-19 Coronavirus. At one time, Polio was immensely feared. It was a dreaded killer in our recent history, taking lives of children and adults alike. But doctors, scientists, and research organizations worked hard to find a vaccine and get it under control, even wiped out. We are seeing the same right now. People are working hard in our country and around the world to combat this current health crisis. We will see a vaccine emerge, and in the not-too-distant future, an end to the Coronavirus, just as we did with Polio. Stay hopeful! A quick look at history tells us we will be victorious once again.

It’s Your Turn: Does this peek into a different historical health crisis give you new hope for our current crisis? What are you doing in the midst of business closures, shut-downs, and potential supply shortages to remain hopeful and positive?

Jennifer Uhlarik discovered the western genre as a pre-teen when she swiped the only “horse” book she found on her older brother’s bookshelf. A new love was born. Across the next ten years, she devoured Louis L’Amour westerns and fell in love with the genre. In college at the University of Tampa, she began penning her own story of the Old West. Armed with a B.A. in writing, she has finaled and won in numerous writing competitions, and been on the ECPA best-seller list several times. In addition to writing, she has held jobs as a private business owner, a schoolteacher, a marketing director, and her favorite—a full-time homemaker. Jennifer is active in American Christian Fiction Writers, Women Writing the West, and is a lifetime member of the Florida Writers Association. She lives near Tampa, Florida, with her husband, college-aged son, and four fur children.

Coming May 1, 2020
Blacksmith Brides—Hearts Are Forged by the Flames of Gentle Love in 4

Historical Stories

A Malleable Heart (California—1870) by Jennifer Uhlarik
A hard-hearted blacksmith finds acceptance with the town laundress. But when his past comes to call, will he resist love’s softening or allow God to hammer his ruined life into something of worth?


  1. I remember standing in line at school to get my sugar cube filled with polio vaccine. We took that every year for awhile along with the scratch test for TB. School nurses don't do anything like that today.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Cindy! I just bet the "spoonful of sugar" made that medicine go down better, didn't it? LOL

  2. I was just reminiscing about the sugar cube as well! This information does give me hope that a preventative will soon be found. I work in a pharmacy which is considered essential service, so my days are spent the same as they always have been. Pandemic or not, people need their medication. Thanks for the post, and it's interesting to me the timing of your post!! Stay well!

    1. Hi Connie, I'm so glad that seeing this gives you hope. There's PLENTY to be hopeful for. And thank you for you continued service to your community in spite of this current virus pandemic. People like you are true warriors. Prayers for your safety, my friend!