The word polio is short for poliomyelitis. The highly-contagious disease is caused by the poliovirus, while myelitis refers to an infection or inflammation of the gray matter of the spinal cord, which is part of the central nervous system.
The disease was classified as either paralytic or non-paralytic.
Non-paralytic does not lead to paralysis and only lasts up to ten days. It has flu-like symptoms, which included, among others, headache, sore throat and fever. Even though the symptoms were relatively minor, parents were nevertheless thrown into a fit of anxiety, fearing the worst. But in most cases, the patient recovered fully within a week.
One of the most startling statistics associated with non-paralytic polio is that up to 95 percent of polio cases had no symptoms at all! The vast majority of people who contracted the disease didn’t even know they had it! That means that people like many of us who grew up during the polio epidemic may have had polio without knowing it.
Paralytic polio was far more serious
The other, and much more serious type of polio is paralytic polio. Its symptoms are much like those of non-paralytic. However, after a week, much more serious symptoms show up, which may include sudden paralysis, partial or complete.
Less than 1 percent of all polio cases are paralytic, of which there are three types – spinal cord polio; polio in the brain stem (bulbar polio); or both, which is called bulbospinal polio. If the polio virus gets into the brain (bulbar), the muscle groups in the chest needed for breathing and swallowing became paralyzed. This was the most feared complication of the disease, and death often occurred at this point. However, doctors were able to save many patients by employing a large device called an iron lung.
The iron lung, also called the “Drinker Respirator” (invented by Dr. Philip Drinker in 1929) was employed to help the patient breathe. The iron lung was a large, tubular tank that provided artificial respiration until the patient could breathe independently. Many patients were placed in the iron lung for only a week or two, then were able to breathe on their own. Others weren’t so fortunate.
Areas that were hard hit by the epidemic had iron lungs flown in from areas that didn’t need them. Hospital hallways were lined with iron lungs during the epidemic, and it’s estimated that over time the iron lung saved many thousands of lives. However, they were cumbersome and very expensive. In 1930, they cost $1,500 each, which was the price of an average home.
Polio wasn’t the only health threat
One of the many reasons why polio was such a feared disease is that no one knew how the disease was spread. Doctors and laboratory researchers worked tirelessly trying to find answers to a disease that crippled thousands.
But, in spite of how dangerous and dreaded polio was, many doctors disliked all the emphasis placed on polio because it drew attention away from more serious health threats. Doctors knew that most of the people who had polio didn’t even know it, and those that did, most recovered with no disability.
They felt a much larger health threat was tuberculosis, which 34,000 people died from in 1950. Also, the deadly flu epidemic of 1957 killed 62,000. By contrast, 3200 people died during 1952, the worst year of the polio epidemic.
But diseases that show up suddenly, as polio did, coupled with the fact that no one completely understood the disease, caused a great deal of fear throughout the nation. Moreover, unlikely as it was, the fear of paralysis terrified many people. Some people felt that the only thing worse than dying of paralytic polio was having the disease and not dying.
Polio research revealed a cruel paradox
Health officials were unsure how the virus spread and how to prevent it. Parents kept their kids clean and well-rested and took every other precaution to prevent the disease. Strangely enough, though, research showed that poor immigrant children who lived in unsanitary conditions were exposed to small amounts of the virus and became immune at an early age. Children from clean, middle-class homes, on the other hand, were at much greater risk of paralytic polio.
That’s where we’ll leave off this week. Next week we’ll look at the polio epidemic closer to home. South Dakota was the hardest hit state per capita in 1948, and Sioux City, Iowa, was the hardest-hit city per capita in the United States during the 1952 epidemic. We’ll cover that and a lot more on the polio epidemic next week. We hope you’ll join us.
Post Polio Litaff, Association A.C _APPLAC Mexico