The Polio Epidemic: A Brief History Of The 20th Century's Most Feared Disease

By | April 23, 2020

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(Wellcome Images/Wikimedia Commons)

In the early 20th century, polio was one of the most debilitating diseases to rock the planet. The illness was easily spread, and it afflicted millions of people with paralysis, fatigue, and muscle weakness. It was an era that brought together people of all stripes to beat the nasty scourge. The efforts by such far-flung opposites as Jonas Salk, Elvis Presley, and President Roosevelt finally brought polio to an end, but not without many trials and tribulations. Mostly trials.

Polio In The '50s

Polio is spread from person to person through a variety of means. In most cases, it moves through food or water contaminated with human feces, or less often, infected saliva. A person infected with the polio can walk around for up to six weeks without showing any symptoms, spreading it around as they go. Then, suddenly, they wake up one day to find that they can't move.

Millions of dollars were invested in developing a polio vaccine. In 1950, virologist and immunologist Hilary Koprowski tested the first successful one at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia. Following this test, polio rates topped out around 25,000 cases annually. By 1953, there were 35,000 cases reported, with 1,400 deaths resulting from the illness. 

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Not All Polios Were Created Equally

Between 1952 and 1953, Denmark experienced one of the worst outbreaks that had ever been recorded in Europe, with an 87% mortality rate among sufferers of polio. The country put together teams of medical professionals ranging from volunteer medical students to nurses, anesthesiologists, and even dental students to work on easing the suffering of patients with necrotic brain lesions caused by the virus. After implementing the use of IPPV, or positive pressure ventilation, the mortality rate in Denmark dropped, although it didn't wipe the illness out completely.