By Kathy Hubbard
The first major documented polio outbreak in the U.S. occurred in Vermont in 1894 when eighteen deaths and 132 cases of permanent paralysis were reported. In 1916, New York City experienced the first large epidemic of polio, with over 9,000 cases and 2,343 deaths. Nationwide, that year, 27,000 cases and 6,000 deaths were reported. By 1952 a record-breaking 57,628 children were diagnosed with poliomyelitis in the U.S.
Polio, also called infantile paralysis, mostly affected children under five, but teens and adults weren’t spared. Franklin D. Roosevelt contracted polio twelve years before he became president, and in 1938 he founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis and spearheaded the March of Dimes for polio research.
Those of us who grew up in the late ’40s and early ’50s can talk about the fear we all had that we would contract this virus that caused nerve injury leading to paralysis, difficulty breathing, and as the stats above tell you, death.
My late husband, Levi, was only ten in 1948 when a week at a summer camp that was meant for running, swimming, hiking, and fun ended him in the hospital for almost a year and unable to do most physical activities afterward.
A neighbor of mine was whisked away by ambulance in the middle of one night, and my mother didn’t sleep for a week because the child had kissed me earlier that day. I was spared, the boy next door wasn’t.
In 1955 a vaccine developed by Jonas Salk came into use, and in 1961 Albert Sabin developed an oral version of the vaccine that virtually replaced the shots, and since 1979 there have been no cases of polio originating in the United States. However, the virus has been brought into this country by travelers with polio as recently as 1993.
With a plan to eradicate polio worldwide, Rotary International has taken the lead to make polio vaccines accessible to the least accessible countries in the world.
“Our progress is real and noteworthy,” Mark Mahoney, President of Rotary International, said in a letter to Rotary members. “In 1988, polio was endemic in 125 countries, with more than 350,000 new cases a year worldwide. Since then, Rotary and our Global Polio Eradication Initiative partners have reduced the incidence of polio by more than 99.9 percent, vaccinated more than 2.5 billion children against the virus, and prevented 18 million cases of paralysis.
“Over the years, Rotary has helped country after country move into the polio-free column. This includes India, which some considered impossible not long ago. Of the three types of poliovirus, type 2 has been eradicated, and type 3 could soon be certified as eradicated. Nigeria has not reported a case of wild poliovirus in nearly three years. If this trend holds, we will be down to just one type of wild poliovirus in only one section of the world, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.”
You might wonder why I’m telling you all this. You might be thinking that polio is gone, often forgotten, and certainly nothing we need to be worried about here in America. But here’s the harsh reality. If the current trend of not vaccinating our children (think the measles outbreak earlier this year) continues, the whole cycle of this virus may begin again.
“It is easy to imagine several scenarios in which polio could be reintroduced to the United States. If that ever happened, the disease could get a foothold if we don’t maintain high vaccination rates,” explains CDC’s Dr. Steve Oberste, Branch Chief, Polio and Picornavirus Laboratory Branch, Division of Viral Diseases, National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.
“For example, an unvaccinated U.S. resident could travel abroad and become infected before returning home. Or a visitor to the United States could travel here while infected. The point is, one person infected with polio is all it takes to start the spread of polio to others if they are not protected by vaccination.”
Tomorrow is World Polio Day, and if you’re interested in listening to an update head over to Matchwood Brewing at 5 p.m. for “Pints for Polio.” You’ll learn more about polio and Rotary’s plans for the future, and Matchwood will donate a portion of the beer and wine sales to Rotary’s Polio Plus.
Kathy Hubbard is a member of Bonner General Health Foundation Advisory Council. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.