The polio vaccine changed lives in the mid-1950s, a decade during which thousands of children were being devastated by the disease. At its height in 1952, the virus infected almost 60,000 kids in the United States. Thousands of these children were paralyzed, and over 3,000 of them died from the epidemic. Summer was a particularly brutal time for the disease, which is spread through contact with human feces. Towns closed swimming pools, and moviegoers were advised not to sit next to one another so they wouldn't spread their germs. This was the horrifying and frightening context for how the polio vaccine came to be.
While most people didn't exhibit polio symptoms, those who were struck the worst – with what is called paralytic polio – were forced to spend time in hospitals where they were hooked up to machines so they could breathe. The disease didn't discriminate: both the rich and the poor (as well as future celebrities) were victims. Thankfully, virologist Jonas Salk and his colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh invented a polio vaccine in 1952. They tested it out on a group of children in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1954 before mass immunization began in 1955. The history of polio is very depressing, and the photos of children (and adults) affected by the disease are heartbreaking. Fortunately, researchers were able to develop a vaccine that eventually eradicated the disease in America – all things to consider if you find yourself doubting the efficacy and necessity of vaccines in the present day.
Polio Terrified Parents In The 1950s Because They Didn't Know How To Stop It
Very few things scared parents in the early 20th century more than polio. Beginning with its first outbreak in Vermont in 1894 – in which 132 people contracted the disease – it would cyclically reoccur, and, for decades, no one knew how to stop it. Children tended to contact the disease during the summer, and, every few years, a polio epidemic would spread through a town. The majority of sufferers would recover from the disease, but others were not so lucky. Some would be temporarily paralyzed while a few were disabled permanently. Others died.
There Is No Cure – The Only Prevention Is Vaccination
The best way to beat polio is through prevention – AKA vaccination – because there is no known cure. Sufferers with muscle impairment can take drugs or undergo special therapy to counteract the symptoms. Those few who are paralyzed by the disease may require a machine to help them breathe if polio affects their throat and chest muscles. If they don't use artificial breathing support, sometimes known as an "iron lung," they can die.
It's Highly Contagious & Spreads Through Poop, Sneezing, And Coughing
The poliovirus is highly contagious and resides in a person's throat and intestines. A person catches the disease through his or her mouth and passes it on to other people through fecal matter, sneezing, and coughing. If a person has infected feces on his hands, for example, and touches his mouth, he can get the disease. Certainly, while this sounds disgusting, it's also not hard to imagine among very young children. It can also spread through objects, such as toys. If a kid plays with a doll that is contaminated, she can contract the virus. Infected people can spread the disease immediately. Even those without symptoms can pass it on.
Vaccines Resulted In An Enormous Drop In Cases – They Made The Disease Stop Occurring Naturally
The first polio vaccines were administered to children at Arsenal Elementary School in Pittsburgh, PA, on February 23, 1954. Once the polio vaccine was distributed to Americans, the number of people who contracted the disease dropped tremendously. In the early 1950s, there were approximately 20,000 paralytic cases per year. By 1960, that number had dropped to 2,525. By 1965, there were only 61 cases of paralytic polio. Finally, in 1979, the United States witnessed its final cases of naturally occurring paralytic polio when an epidemic took place among a group of Amish people in the Midwest.