Now and then: As the country embraces COVID-19 vaccines, a look back on the age of polio

Polio was eliminated in our country decades ago, but those who lived through it remember it vividly

4/16/1955 -- Dr. William S. Burgoyne gives a shot of the Salk anti-polio vaccine to Michael Urnezis, 6, while the boy's sister, Joanne, 12, a polio victim, looks on April 16.
4/16/1955 -- Dr. William S. Burgoyne gives a shot of the Salk anti-polio vaccine to Michael Urnezis, 6, while the boy's sister, Joanne, 12, a polio victim, looks on April 16.

If you have anyone in your life who’s old enough to remember, there was a time, in the first half of the 20th century, that might draw comparisons to life today: There was fear, uncertainty and lots of concern for public health.

It wasn’t COVID-19, of course, the current pandemic. It was an epidemic called paralytic poliomyelitis, or infantile paralysis -- perhaps best known as polio.

In fact, polio was once one of the most feared diseases in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which goes on to say online that in the early 1950s, before polio vaccines were available, polio outbreaks caused more than 15,000 cases of paralysis each year.

Parents were scared to let their children go outside; travel and commerce between cities were sometimes restricted, and quarantines were imposed.

Polio wreaked havoc on communities.

“I might not remember what I went to the kitchen for today, but I can remember everything about the day I went with my family to get the (polio) vaccine,” said Gary Tietze, who lives in the San Antonio area and is the father to one of the co-authors of this story.

Once vaccines were introduced — specifically, trivalent inactivated poliovirus vaccine (IPV) in 1955 and trivalent oral poliovirus vaccine (OPV) in 1963 — the number of polio cases fell rapidly to less than 100 in the 1960s and fewer than 10 in the 1970s, according to the CDC. Thanks to a successful vaccination program, the United States has now been polio-free since 1979.

But back to those old enough to remember, like Tietze: Have you ever heard the stories of people rushing out for their sugar cubes? (That was the way some of the oral vaccines were given).


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