How does coronavirus compare to the polio epidemic?

I am not old enough to remember polio in America, but my mom is, and she has a cousin who got it and still has an atrophied leg and trouble walking. I’ve met a couple of other people like that over the years. I know pools, etc. were closed in the summer, but how else did polio affect American society?

What other measures were taken to mitigate its spread? What did we understand about the disease then, and what have we learned since? Was there opposition to the mitigation measures like there is now? Those of you who are old enough to remember or know people who do, tell us stories.

The Salk vaccine came out in 1954. If you’re of a certain age, you remember the blocks-long lines of people getting their polio shots at those massive public inoculation programs. (Can you imagine that today?) I remember that. I must have been 4 or 5 at the time.

I have had moderate-to-severe (depending on who’s evaluating) scoliosis all my life. I asked a doctor once why that happens. He speculated that I probably had “sub-clinical” polio as an infant.

Polio had this quirk: If a child caught it at a sufficiently early age (the number “under 6 months” sticks in my mind), it typically caused little or no damage, possibly leaving the child with some weakened muscles maybe. That would explain having a bent spine, if the erector spinae muscles were left weakened on one side more than the other side.

Or maybe it was “under 6 weeks” – Now I realize I’m confused on that detail.

Surely many readers here (at least those named Shirley) have seen those gruesome photos of people in iron lungs. These people spent the rest of their lives there. These two pics seem to be the most famous, most re-printed ones:


I wasn’t born yet when the vaccine came out, but one of my closest friends works for Rotary International, and of course polio eradication worldwide is still one of their major missions. He was in Bangladesh on a national immunization day a few years ago, and he said it was completely wild to watch! Everyone who had already been immunized had their finger painted blue so they could keep track of who was who in the mayhem.

I don’t think that’s quite true. It was typically two weeks

This is something I have never seen mentioned. Does anybody have any more information? Cite?

I’m just old enough to remember polio, had classmates who had recovered from it, and have several older friends who still walk with bad limps or crutches.

IIRC, the biggest concern was children catching polio, probably because adults had already been through several outbreaks, and over the years they had either gotten it or they hadn’t. Depending on the time of year, schools or swimming pools were the most visible closings.

My most direct memory was my parents and older sisters telling me I couldn’t drink from water fountains because there might be polio germs. I have no idea whether there was any truth to that.

There’s a 1946 recording of Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey reading comics over the air to children as part of a “Stay at Home” campaign during an outbreak. That same year there were 581 cases in St. Louis A 1949 outbreak killed 64 people in the St. Louis area.

When a vaccine was finally introduced in 1956, priority was given to vaccinating children.

Both are true. A lot of people recovered after a short period and were able to breathe without assistance. But some people never recovered and needed to use an iron lung for the rest of their lives.

This article and video tells about some people who developed polio in the early fifties and are still using iron lungs.