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THE LAST WORD: Like polio, COVID-19 is an unseen enemy

Kerry Hubartt

The COVID-19 pandemic is one of many diseases that have threatened world-wide health over the years, but it’s the first since polio in the 1950s that has struck as much fear in the general public.

Both the coronavirus and polio have occurred in my lifetime and the two have had an ironic twist: In the 1950s our parents were worried for their kids, like me. Now it’s the kids who are worried about their parents, like me.

Poliomyelitis (also called infantile paralysis) is an acute, viral, infectious disease that usually strikes children under 5 and is most often spread through infected water. There is no specific cure, although there are currently several vaccines. When the World Health Organization announced in 2014 an international public health emergency due to a recurrent spread of polio, I wrote about it in this column, including how the disease had touched my own life.

The 1952 polio epidemic became the worst outbreak in U.S. history. It heightened fears of the disease, that had ravaged the world’s young from roughly 1916 until the welcomed arrival of Jonas Salk’s vaccine in 1955. Of the more than 57,000 cases reported that year more than 3,000 people died and more than 21,000 were left with mild to disabling paralysis.

The disease crippled its victims by attacking the central nervous system. It became active in warm months and was primarily transmitted through contaminated water.

It was September 1954 when my wife Beth, then 5, showed symptoms of polio. A trip to the doctor in Van Wert, Ohio, ended up in a stay in isolation at Lima Memorial Hospital where her mother couldn’t even come into the room to be with her.

“Pretty heavy stuff for a 5-year-old,” I wrote in 2014. “And it didn’t help when she learned that a little boy in an iron lung died of the disease while she was there.”

She was one of the fortunate survivors of polio, whereas many died or suffered the effects of the disease throughout their lives. Dave Black, the best man in our wedding, had been crippled in one leg by the disease.

There are similarities, but also great differences between what we are going through now and what Americans experienced 60 years ago.

Like the coronavirus, polio was an unseen enemy. There was quarantining of infected families and some amount of social distancing. But the country didn’t shut down. Mostly, it was just the swimming pools that did.

It was the vaccine that ended the terror. In 1955, when the first clinical trials proved Salk’s new polio vaccine was “safe, effective and potent,” it was front-page news.

In a White House ceremony that same year, USA Today recounts in a recent story, Salk received the Congressional Gold Medal from an emotional President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who said, “I have no words to thank you.”

“That same triumphant moment may well come for the scientists who find a vaccine for COVID-19,” said the USA Today story, “giving people across generations and the world a reprieve from this global pandemic.”

Government officials have announced that a healthy volunteer in Seattle was the first person in the U.S. to receive a fast-tracked experimental coronavirus vaccine as part of a new clinical trial, one of many being conducted by nearly three dozen companies.

“Can you imagine the sigh of relief when there’s an effective coronavirus vaccine?” wrote Dr. Perri Klass in a New York Times column recently. “Given the intensity of the news cycle right now, it’s not actually so hard to imagine we might have an international moment like the one that came when the Salk trial results were announced.”

Klass, a pediatrician, compared the situation to the flu, pointing out that vaccines lower your odds of getting sick and reduce the chances of circulating the disease among the population, especially children, the elderly and those with underlying conditions.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates there will be from 20,000 to 50,000-plus deaths from the flu in the U.S. this season.

“And yet,” Klass wrote, “it’s a struggle every year to convince people to take flu seriously, to get vaccinated, to practice good handwashing — all the things that are suddenly understood to be matters of life and death.”

Shew wrote, “Vaccines are one of our human victories, a triumph of our ingenuity and intelligence, our science taking advantage of our biology by turning on our immune systems, and we need to be worthy of them.”

We’ve come a long way since the polio scourge of 60 years ago. But it’s a shame it takes something so serious to convince so many people to take the necessary measures to prevent the spread of disease.

— Kerry Hubartt is former editor of The News-Sentinel.

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