In the 1950s, the polio virus terrified American families. Parents tried “social distancing” – effectively and out of fear. Polio was not part of the life they signed up for. In the otherwise comfortable era of World War II, the spread of polio showed that middle-class families could not build worlds entirely under their control.
For the Texan town of San Angelo on the Concho River, halfway between Lubbock and San Antonio, the spring of 1949 brought disease, uncertainty and above all fear. A series of deaths and a wave of patients unable to breathe have resulted in the air transportation of medical equipment with C-47 military carriers.
Cities practice extreme social distancing
Fearing the spread of the contagious virus, the city closed swimming pools, swimming pools, cinemas, schools and churches, forcing priests to contact their congregations on local radio. Some motorists who had to stop to refuel in San Angelo did not fill their deflated tires for fear of bringing home air containing the infectious virus. And one of the city’s top doctors diagnosed his patients on the basis of his “clinical impression” rather than taking the risk of being infected when administered the appropriate diagnostic test, writes Gareth Williams, Paralyzed by fear: the story of polio. The scene was repeated across the country, especially on the east coast and the Midwest.
The virus was polio, a highly contagious disease with symptoms such as common flu-like symptoms such as sore throat, fever, fatigue, headache, stiff neck and upset stomach. For some, however, polio has affected the brain and spinal cord, which could cause meningitis and, in one in 200, paralysis. For two to ten people with paralysis, the end result was death.
Transmitted mainly by feces but also by airborne droplets from one person to another, polio took six to 20 days to incubate and remained contagious until two weeks later. The disease first appeared in the United States in 1894, but the first major epidemic occurred in 1916 when public health experts recorded 27,000 cases and 6,000 deaths, or about a third in New York.
After rabies and smallpox, polio was only the third viral disease discovered by scientists at the time, writes David Oshinksi in Polio: an American story. But many remained unknown. Some blamed Italian immigrants, others pointed to car exhausts, some believed cats were to blame. But its long incubation period, among other things, made it difficult even for experts to determine how the virus was transferred.
Poliomyelitis ‘Fly Theory’ falsely associated with insects
The prevalence of polio in late spring and summer popularized the “fly theory,” explains Vincent Cirillo in the American entomologist. Most middle-class Americans tended to associate the disease with flies, dirt and poverty. And the seasonal outbreak of the disease in summer and the apparent dormancy in winter corresponded to the increase and decrease in the mosquito population.
After World War II, Americans sprayed their neighborhoods, homes and children with the highly toxic pesticide DDT in hopes of banning polio, Elena Conis reports in the newspaper Environmental history. However, the number of cases has increased each season. There were 25,000 cases in 1946 – as many as in 1916, writes Oshinski – and the number increased almost every year to its peak of 52,000 in 1952.
There were signs of hope. The 1930s had seen significant improvements in the iron lung, a negative pressure chamber that could aid the respiratory process for severely paralyzed patients. The March of Dimes organization has waged a vigorous campaign to fund the development of a vaccine. And the comparable chances of contracting the disease remained low, the chances of long-term consequences minuscule, not to mention death.
Polio hysteria finally subsides with a vaccine
the Journal of Pediatrics, parent guru Benjamin Spock, all experts and most editorial boards have warned of irrational “polio hysteria”. And yet, Oshinski tells us, headlines and images of polio victims were familiar front page items during the summer months. American parents were petrified. A 1952 survey found that Americans feared only nuclear annihilation more than polio.
The random pattern of the disease made the parents helpless, as did the lack of a cure. As middle class parents saw, something like that was not supposed to happen. Infectious disease had been the leading cause of death in 1900, it was no longer in 1950. They had survived the Great Depression, fought and won World War II, and returned safely from a dangerous world. Oshinski shares this memory of a journalist from that time: “In this flourishing post-war era, a terrible disease haunted their lives and helped to spoil for these young parents the idealized notion of what family life would be like. . Polio was a crack in the fantasy. “
By 1955, epidemiological evidence had clearly established that mosquitoes and flies played no significant role in polio epidemics, and Jonas Salk had announced that he had developed a polio vaccine, making the question irrelevant . Today, new cases of polio have been largely eliminated in the United States. Salk received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977.