Polio: When vaccines and re-emergence were just as daunting

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FILE - In this Oct. 7, 1954, file photo, Dr. Jonas Salk, developer of the polio vaccine, holds a rack of test tubes in his lab in Pittsburgh. Tens of millions of today's older Americans lived through the polio epidemic, their childhood summers dominated by concern about the virus. Some parents banned their kids from public swimming pools and neighborhood playgrounds and avoided large gatherings. Some of those from the polio era are sharing their memories with today's youngsters as a lesson of hope for the battle against COVID-19. Soon after polio vaccines became widely available, U.S. cases and death tolls plummeted to hundreds a year, then dozens in the 1960s, and to U.S. eradication in 1979. A handful of cases since then have arrived in visitors from overseas. (AP Photo, File)

CINCINNATI – The COVID-19 pandemic and the distribution of the vaccines that will prevent it have surfaced haunting memories for Americans who lived through an earlier time when the country was swept by a virus that, for so long, appeared to have no cure or way to prevent it.

They were children then. They had friends or classmates who became wheelchair-bound or dragged legs with braces. Some went to hospitals to use iron lungs they needed to breathe. Some never came home.

Now they are older adults. Again, they find themselves in what has been one of the hardest-hit age groups, just as they were as children in the polio era. They are sharing their memories with today’s younger people as a lesson of hope for the emergence from COVID-19.

Clyde Wigness, a retired University of Vermont professor active in a mentoring program, recently told 13-year-old Ferris Giroux about the history of polio during their weekly Zoom call. Families and schools saved coins to contribute to the “March of Dimes” to fund anti-polio efforts, he recalled, and the nation celebrated successful vaccine tests.

“As soon as the vaccine came out, everybody jumped on it and got it right away,” recounts Wigness, 84, a native of Harlan, Iowa. “Everybody got on the bandwagon, and basically it was eradicated in the United States.”

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, before vaccines were available, polio outbreaks caused more than 15,000 cases of paralysis each year, with U.S. deaths peaking at 3,145 in 1952. Outbreaks led to quarantines and travel restrictions. Soon after vaccines became widely available, American cases and death tolls plummeted to hundreds a year, then dozens in the 1960s. In 1979, polio was eradicated in the United States.

“So really, what I would love for people to be reassured about is that there have been lots of times in history when things haven’t gone the way we’ve expected them to,” says Joaniko Kohchi, director of Adelphi University’s Institute for Parenting. “We adapt, and our children will have skills and strengths and resiliencies that we didn’t have.”

While today's children learned to stay at home and attend school remotely, wear masks when they went anywhere and frequently use hand sanitizer, many of their grandparents remember childhood summers dominated by concern about the airborne virus, which was also spread through feces. Some parents banned their kids from public swimming pools and neighborhood playgrounds and avoided large gatherings.