30 March 2020

Social distancing during the polio epidemics

Lots of comparisons being drawn recently between the coronavirus pandemic and the influenza pandemic of 1918.  In the weeks ahead I'll plan to present some information about the more recent polio epidemics, starting with an article by a professor of history at NYU published in The Atlantic today:
Within days [in the spring of 1949] the hospital’s ICU was overflowing with children, most in critical condition, and mild concern turned to panic. “Polio Takes Seventh Life,” screamed the banner headline. “San Angelo Pastors Appeal for Divine Help in Plague.”

Prayer proved insufficient. For the first time in anyone’s memory, social distancing took hold. The city council voted to close theaters, bars, bowling alleys, and the municipal swimming pool. Tanker trucks sprayed DDT, singling out the open pit toilets on the “Negro” and “Mexican” side of town. Tourist traffic disappeared. The locals stopped handling money, and some refused to speak on the telephone, believing that germs traveled through the transmission lines. Known for its neighborliness, San Angelo quickly ditched the niceties that it once took for granted. “We got to the point that nobody could comprehend,” a pediatrician recalled, “when people would not even shake hands.”...

Both the poliovirus and the coronavirus rely on “silent carriers”—those showing no immediate symptoms—to spread the disease, inciting a fearful sense of uncertainty. Both target specific, if dramatically different, age groups: COVID-19 seems especially lethal for the elderly, polio for the young...

Why did most of its victims appear to come from middle-class surroundings? And why was epidemic polio primarily a disease of the 20th century that struck the world’s more developed nations, especially the United States?...

Others see polio’s dramatic spread in the 1940s and ’50s in terms of cleanliness. As Americans grew more germ-conscious and sanitary-minded, there was less chance that they would encounter poliovirus very early in life, when the disease is milder and maternal antibodies provide temporary protection...

The great polio epidemic struck at a time when the federal government wasn’t much involved in the medical problems of the citizenry... Virtually all of the research, publicity, and patient support surrounding polio was accomplished by a single private charity, the March of Dimes, which raised hundreds of millions of dollars.
More at The Atlantic.

Photo credit Corbis, via NPR.


  1. I thought this was for keeping us from using social media on our phones.

  2. On a related note, the name "March of Dimes" was coined (get it?) by the same guy that wrote the theme music for Warner Bros's Merrie Melodies. On a personal note, my son was in the NICU when he was born and the representatives from March of Dimes were the nicest people. They gave my 1-day old son his first book for his mom to read to him and it's still one her her favs.

  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3291411/


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...