Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Polio -- The Summer Scourge

Polio, or poliomyelitis, was one of the most feared and studied diseases of the first half of the 20th Century. It appeared unpredictably, striking its victims, mostly children, with frightening randomness that resulted in near panic during the epidemics in the 1940s and 1950s.

My paternal grandfather, Marvin Edward Jennings (1901-1961), was one of the unfortunate children who contracted polio. For the rest of his life, he wore a leg brace and believed the disease caused his widowed father to commit him to an orphanage, which I've written about here.

One of the enduring memories of my childhood, is the entire family waiting in long lines at local schools in order to take the polio vaccine, which was delivered in the form of a sugar cube. It's a memory that many of my younger friends don't have. Thank goodness!

Waiting in line for the polio vaccine
The polio timeline in the U.S. is a testament to a dedicated medical research effort:

1894 -- The first major polio epidemic reported in the United States occurs in Vermont, consisting of 132 total cases, including some adults.

1909 - Massachusetts begins counting polio cases.

1916 - There is a large outbreak of polio in the United States. Though the total number of affected individuals is unknown, over 9,000 cases are reported in New York City along. Attempts at controlling the disease largely involve the use of isolation and quarantine, neither of which is successful.

1928 - Philip Drinker and Louis Shaw develop the iron lung, a large metal tank equipped with a pump that assists respiration, is field tested and goes into commercial production three years later.

Photo courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania
1934 - There is a major outbreak of poliio in Los Angeles. Nearly 2,500 polio cases are treated from May through November of that year at the Los Angeles County General Hospital alone.

1935 - Physicians Maurice Brodie and John Kollmer compete against each other, trying to be the first to develop a successful polio vaccine. Field trials fail with disastrous results as vaccines are blamed for causing many cases of polio, some of which are fatal.

1937 - Franklin Roosevelt announces the creation of the National Foundation for Infantile paralysis.

1938 - Entertainer Eddie Canter coins the name "March of Dimes" as he urges radio listeners to send their spare change to the White House to be used by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis in the fight against polio. The name sticks.

1940 - Sister Elizabeth Kenny travels from her native Australia to California where she is virtually ignored by the medical community. She then travels to Minnesota where she give the first presentation in the United States to members of the Mayo Clinic staff regarding her procedures for treating polio patients by means of hot-packing and stretching affected limbs.

1942 -- The first Sister Kenny Institute opens in Minneapolis.

1943 - The Sister Kenny Foundation is formed, and Kenny's procedures become the standard treatment for polio patients in the United States, replacing the ineffective traditional approaches of "convalescent serum" and immobilization.

1945 - Large epidemics of polio in the United States occur immediately after the war with an average of more than 20,000 cases a year from 1945 to 1949.

1947 - Jonas Salk accepts a position in Pittsburgh at the new medical laboratory funded b y the Sarah Mellon Scientific Foundation.

1948 - Salk's laboratory is one of four awarded research grants for the polio virus typing project. Salk decides to use the newly developed tissue culture method of cultivating and working with the polio virus. Other researches, including Albert Sabin, who would later develop the oral polio vaccine, contiue to do their work with monkeys infected with the polio virus, a more difficult and time-consuming process.

Doctors Salk and Younger
Photo courtesy of the University of Pittsburgh
1952 - There are 58,000 cases of polio in the United States -- the most ever. Early versions of the Salk vaccine, using killed polio virus, are successful with small samples of patients at the Watson Home for Crippled Children and the Polk State School, a Pennsylvania facility for individuals with mental illness.

1953 - Amid continued "polio hysteria," there are 35,000 cases of polio in the United States.

A physical therapist works with two polio-strickened children
Photo courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
1954 - Massive field trials of the Salk vaccine are sponsored by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis.

1955 - News of the successful vaccine trials is announced and a nationwide vaccination program is quickly started.

1957 - After a mass immunization campaign promoted by the March of Dimes, there are only about 5,600 cases of polio in the United States.

1958 and 1959 - Field trials prove the Sabin oral vaccine, which uses live, attenuated (weakened) virus, to be effective.

1962 - The Salk vaccine is replaced by the Sabin oral vaccine, which is not only superior in terms of ease of administration, but also provides longer-lasting immunization.

Children taking the Sabin oral polio vaccine in the early 1960s
1964 - Only 121 cases of polio are reported nationally.

1979 - The last indigenous transmission of wild polio virus occures in the United States. All future cases are either imported or vaccine-related.

Most of the information in this post comes from Dr. Edmund Sass's book, Polio's Legacy: An Oral History.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting, I had forgotten what was in that sugar cube in 1964.