Decades after polio first surfaced in Vermont in the late 19th century, researchers determined that the virus was caused by contact with the stool of an infected person and spread through contaminated water or food. Many who contracted a severe form of the disease, including President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, were forced to wear heavy, full-length metal leg braces or get around in wheelchairs or use iron lungs—coffin-like primitive respirators that encased patients up to their necks. At polio’s peak in 1952, there were nearly 58,000 cases and more than 3,000 deaths nationwide.
Experts say polio survivors and those who lived through the dark days of the epidemic see shades of the 1940s and 1950s in today’s pandemic.
David M. Oshinsky, PhD, director of the Division of Medical Humanities at NYU Langone and author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning book Polio: An American Story (Oxford University Press, 2005), compares his experience living through the time of both COVID-19 and polio. He recalls his childhood, seeing his parents perform at-home polio tests on him to check for muscle pain or weakness.
“There was enormous fear associated with both polio and coronavirus,” says Dr. Oshinsky. “Most of the patients in both epidemics showed no symptoms. The vast majority of polio survivors didn’t have symptoms or had a minor case that looked like muscle pain or stomach flu. In a small percentage of cases, paralysis would set in or death.”
Dr. Oshinsky and others who lived through the polio epidemic are now seeing a new deadly virus in their lifetimes, and are hopeful that vaccines will once again help life return to normal.
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