Thanks to vaccine development, astonishingly as late as 1952 courtesy of Jonas Salk and of the now more commonly used oral polio vaccine through Albert Sabin and licensed in 1962, cases of paralytic poliomyelitis caused by endemic transmission of poliovirus are pretty much a thing of the past. But the legacy of this disease remains, polio survivors making up one of the largest groups of people with disability today.
Although major polio epidemics didn’t manifest themselves until the early part of the 20th century, there is clear evidence that polio has been around for a long time. Carvings and paintings from Ancient Egypt show otherwise healthy adults with withered limbs and children walking with the aid of sticks. To prove that the disease was no respecter of status it is thought that the Roman emperor, Claudius, was an early sufferer and the novelist, Sir Walter Scott, can lay claim to being the first recorded victim of polio. He developed “a severe teething fever which deprived him of the power of his right leg” and, indeed, the disease was known in the early 19th century as Dental Paralysis.
Michael Underwood in 1789 provided the first clinical description of polio, calling it “a debility of the lower extremities” but it was not until 1840 that the first medical report on it was produced (by Jakob Heine) and 1890 before an empirical study into an epidemic had been carried out (by Karl Oskar Medin).
Prior to 1900 major epidemics were unknown but in the first decade of that century localised paralytic polio epidemics appeared in Europe and the United States. By 1910 epidemics were a regular occurrence, particularly in the summer months in major conurbations. At its peak in the 1940s and 50s polio would kill or paralyse upwards of half a million people a year.
Probably the most (in)famous epidemic was that announced in Brooklyn on June 17th 1916. In that year there were over 2,000 deaths in the city of New York alone. This announcement coupled with the press printing the names and addresses of the victims and the (re)introduction of quarantine engendered a climate of panic. Thousands fled the city, cinemas were closed, meetings cancelled and children were warned to avoid drinking from public water fountains and to eschew swimming pools and beaches.
It was the youngsters who were most at risk – the peak age for contracting polio in the United States in 1950 was between 5 and 9 years of age, although a third of those who contracted the disease were over 15 years old. Prior to the development of the vaccines treatment was rudimentary. The first approach was quarantine and cardboard placards were placed in windows warning all and sundry that a sufferer was quarantined inside. A fine of up to $100 was levied in 1909 on those breaching the terms of the quarantine or for removing a placard.
From 1928 when it was first used in a Children’s Hospital in Boston until the 1970s polio victims were often encased in the metal chambers of an Iron Lung, often for months or years or, indeed, for their duration of their lifetime. This fearsome machine assisted the patients in their breathing and whilst the various manifestations of the Lung undoubtedly saved lives, they were costly – about the price of an average house – and cumbersome and, frankly, offered the patient a miserable existence.
Perhaps the most famous survivor of polio was Franklin D Roosevelt who contracted the disease in 1921 and his campaigning and establishment of the March of Dimes did much to improve the lot of polio survivors.