The Deadly Paralysis of the Polio Epidemic

By: Tony Wang

Image Credit: Flickr @ NIAID

Sometime in 1949, on a warm summer day, Rosie, a typical seven year old girl who had just moved to America, was out playing with a few of her friends when, suddenly, she developed an excruciating migraine. She left for her home quickly, and, after arriving there, was sent to bed by her parents, who hoped that sleep would alleviate her pain. However, things were no better the next day; in fact, not only did she still have the migraine, but her legs had become so weak that she could no longer stand up. Even more worrying was the fact that she was also beginning to have difficulty breathing. That same day, she was admitted to the nearest hospital. Doctors were perplexed, wondering how she had gone from a happy and healthy child to one that was borderline paralyzed in a mere day. The answer was polio.

This was the tragic reality that many people faced throughout the late 19th century as well as the entirety of the 20th century, a period of time that would go down in history as the polio epidemic. Now, let’s take a look at what polio is exactly. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, polio, or poliomyelitis, is a life-threatening disease caused by a type of virus known as the poliovirus. It is highly contagious and can cause difficulty breathing, paralysis, and, in some cases, death. It gets more complex than this, however, as there are two types of polio: paralytic polio and nonparalytic polio. Nonparalytic polio is the more common variant of the two. People who contract this type of polio tend to experience flu-like symptoms as well as the aforementioned ones, but do not suffer from paralysis. Paralytic polio, on the other hand, is a more rare type of polio that can result in paralysis. It is also the type that we will be focusing on in this article.

So, one of the many ways paralytic polio can be transmitted is through person-to-person contact. Person-to-person contact refers to when an infected individual either touches or exchanges bodily fluids with someone else. This is particularly dangerous, as it is possible for individuals who are infected with paralytic polio to appear to be asymptomatic in the earlier stages of their infection. Another way paralytic polio can be transmitted is through coming in contact with food, contaminated water, and even the feces of an infected individual. This is due to the fact that the virus can survive in several different substances for prolonged periods of time.

Now, while knowing how this disease is transmitted can be quite useful, it’s also important that we’re aware of the symptoms of it. Initial symptoms of paralytic polio are similar to those of the flu; such symptoms include coughing, soreness in the throat, a light fever, and a runny nose. Late-stage symptoms include the loss of reflexes, severe muscle aches, and floppy limbs. To make matters worse, these late-stage symptoms can last for several years, as polio is not a short-term illness. Furthermore, despite the efforts of modern-day medicine, many patients who manage to overcome this horrendous disease still have to deal with post-polio syndrome, which include progressive muscle weakness, fatigue, difficulty breathing, sleep apnea, muscle wasting, and a decreased tolerance to cold temperatures. Like the aforementioned late-stage symptoms, these symptoms can also last for years.

Of course, all of this raises the question: how exactly do we combat this illness? Well, before

vaccines were invented, paralytic polio patients had to be placed into a medical device known as iron lungs, which are, essentially, long metal tubes that create a negative pressure on the body; this negative pressure allows for the patient’s diaphragm to contract and release more easily, allowing them to continue breathing even after their lungs have failed. However, this was only a temporary solution. While it did provide breathing support to the patient, it did not actually combat the virus.

Image Credit: Flickr @ Shannon Fesuluai

Things would continue like this until, eventually, the first inactivated polio vaccine (IPV) was produced using a virus grown on monkey kidney cells and inactivated with formalin. In 1954, the inactivated vaccine was tested in a placebo-controlled trial, which enrolled 1.6 million children in Canada, Finland and the United States. It was found to be a success, and was soon deployed to the general public. Nowadays, because of this vaccine, polio no longer ravages societies. One could say that the polio virus, as well as its respective vaccine, serves as a reminder to the importance of vaccines; a reminder that is especially important during our current times.


Image Credit:

No changes were made to the following image,, License: Creative Commons Legal Code

No changes were made to the following image, , License: Creative Commons Legal Code

What Did You Learn?


1. How is polio treated?

The polio vaccine protects both kids and adults. Almost all kids who get vaccinated will not contract polio. However, those who do contract polio can be treated by using one of the two types of vaccines: Inactivated poliovirus vaccine (IPV) and Oral poliovirus vaccine. The inactivated poliovirus vaccine was invented in 1955, and is given as an injection to the arm or leg, depending on the person's age. The oral poliovirus vaccine was invented in 1963 and is still used in many parts of the world. The oral poliovirus vaccine is usually administered using pills, and provides a similar result as the IPV.

2. How did polio affect the people living during that time period?

The first case of polio was seen on June 17, 1894 in Rutland County, Vermont. There were 18 deaths and 132 people who were left permanently paralyzed. It was the most feared disease in the 1950s. Parents were afraid of letting their child go outside during the summer because cases of polio peaked during summer time. If one person in the family contracted polio, everyone in the house would have to stay in quarantine. In the late 1940s, there was a huge polio outbreak, disabling 35,000 people and paralyzing 15,000 people each year. After the invention of IPV and oral vaccine, polio cases dropped to 100 in the 1960s and less than 10 in the 1970s.

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