Two epidemics a century apart

Michael was a boy a few years older than me at primary School.  I remember him even now. He had blonde hair and lots of freckles. He was small for his age and wore those round NHS spectacles with sticky tape on one side holding them together. Maybe I remember him because he wore callipers. There were  a few children in the school with callipers. Our teacher explained that the boys had polio.  She showed us pictures of iron lungs and I was very frightened. I had nightmares about these great big machines and was terrified that I might have to get into one of them.

And I had completely forgotten about this until I read an article in The Guardian – The Man in the Iron Lung. It tells the story of Paul Alexander who in 1952 in Texas USA contracted polio which left him paralysed for life.  He has spent most of his life in  an  Iron Lung.   Reading the article bought back those memories and  indeed the fears that I have right now about  Coronavirus.

It’s an interesting read.  Takes some guts to live the life he has

Thanks to Jonas Salk the scientist who discovered a polio vaccine in 1955 it has now been almost eradicated worldwide.  The last case of polio in the US was in 1979 and in the UK 1984. The World Health Organisation had declared The Americas and the Western pacific region polio free.  It is only endemic now in Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan. I am not sure why but I am sure you can google it and find out.

Many of you thankfully will know nothing about the polio epidemic. It was incredibly destructive and every summer during the polio season — it was a virus that liked warm weather – parents would live in fear.   In a way they are the same fears that we are now going through. Parents stopped sending their children to school, they kept them indoors, swimming pools, cinemas etc were closed, public places were shunned and like us today they social distanced.    I imagine for those who lived through the polio epidemic of the last century this must feel strangely familiar.

Ina Pinkney, now 77 was a year old when she contracted the disease in Brooklyn, N.Y. “When my parents would take me out … you could hear everybody get silent and move away, which is very much what it feels like now.”

The sheer numbers of people affected by Polio in America during its worst outbreak in  1952 were staggering:  57,626 cases, 3,145 died and 21,269 left paralysis.


Interesting too are the parallels between the two viruses that for every person who got polio hundreds of others would get the virus without serious effects and yet they too could carry it to others.

Maybe we have been lulled into a false sense of security and forgotten the terror of other diseases which we are now routinely vaccinated against: Diphtheria, Typhus, Measles, Mumps and TB.

So, this is our generations pandemic. Knowing what has gone before us doesn’t make the current epidemic any less scary but it is just putting it into context.  It is hard to imagine whilst we are in the midst of COVID19 that we might also one day – hopefully forget about it too.

Ina said that in surviving the polio epidemic it has given her perspective with this current epidemic.  “I live with hope and I live with anticipation that we will get on the other side of this. I don’t know what it looks like. It doesn’t even matter, as long as people are not getting sick and people are not dying.”

I too am cautiously optimistic that we have many ‘Jonas Salk’s’ around the world working on finding a vaccine for COVID19.

“Let’s be careful out there”







Author: ladyserendipidy

Journalist, event planner, mother, animal lover, not very good bridge or scrabble player, hopeless housekeeper, ex social worker, radio producer, tv executive, hater of almost all insects especially the eight legged ones. And if I am ever allowed out of my house, intrepid traveler.

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