In the summer of 1952, parents didn’t let their children visit playgrounds, swimming pools were closed, movie theaters shuttered, and when September finally arrived, some public schools didn’t open. The polio epidemic reached its peak that year, after several years of steadily increasing numbers of infections and deaths. In early December 1952, The New York Times reported that there were 55,384 cases in the city that year, doubling the number from 1951.1 The epidemic was cyclical: every few years the virus sprouted again, killing and debilitating thousands of people and disrupting millions of lives. And every year, when schools reopened, parents lobbied for them to stock enough soap and towels for all children, while New York City newspapers regularly printed the toll the virus was taking borough by borough.2
Like today’s coronavirus disease, poliomyelitis first appeared as a mystery. Some had mild symptoms and recovered completely, while others required an iron lung, the ventilation machine made famous by the disease. Our current pandemic is often compared to the 1918 Spanish flu because of the number of people killed and the global scale of its effects. But the 1952 polio epidemic might have more to teach us. It happened more recently, ushered in what we would now recognize as the modern intensive care unit—complete with the earliest version of the respirator—and it gripped Americans in ways that mirror the current crisis. And as we hope will happen with COVID-19, polio was finally eradicated in the US thanks to a vaccine.
When my son was two years old, a neighbor I had only met in passing spoke to me at the playground while our children ran freely. “Have you vaccinated your son?” she asked. I was surprised by the brazenness of the question. “Yes, of course,” I answered. She shared, with genuine distress, how she believed that vaccines had permanently altered her daughter’s personality. I’ve always been firmly in the pro-vaccination camp, but I admit that her story instilled momentary doubt. Entering parenthood, I soon learned, meant meeting fellow parents, people you might have never otherwise been friends with, and learning how people’s anxieties shape their parenting. In time, I became quite familiar with what is now called, derisively, the anti-vaxx argument. It’s an argument that I am reminded of as politicians, scientists, and journalists are all championing how once a vaccine is found for SARS-CoV-2, the official name for this virus, we will all be able to breathe a sigh of relief. We can only hope that COVID-19 will one day be as rare and preventable as polio is today.
To be sure, the comparisons between poliomyelitis and COVID-19 have limits. For one, polio isn’t as contagious and didn’t kill as many people. Some historians have suggested that the media unnecessarily fueled the panic about polio and exaggerated its risks.3 Unlike this pandemic, it targeted young children, especially those between the age of four and nine, which made the disease particularly frightening to parents. Polioviruses thrive in the summer, but we’re currently hoping that this coronavirus, like influenza, will fade as warmer weather reaches the northern hemisphere.
Scientists never have discovered a cure for polio, and it’s as likely as not that a cure will never be discovered for COVID-19. We have a pretty bad track record when it comes to curing viral diseases. But it’s likely that a vaccine can be developed for this current strain of the coronavirus, and if the history of polio can teach us anything, it’s that such a vaccine will alleviate the anxiety that we’ve been living with these past few weeks. When the polio vaccine became available for widespread application, parents lined up by the hundreds to receive it for their children.
Before social distancing, when I was still encountering people outside my immediate family and meeting new anti-vaxxers, I would tell them: if you were raising children in the era of polio, you wouldn’t be against vaccines. In 1955, the first polio vaccine was approved for widespread use, and by 1979, the disease had been eradicated from the US. If we’re to find an upside to the horror of this new pandemic, perhaps it will be this: we hope that once again, we will be able to point to another vaccine that saved millions after a pandemic turned our lives upside down for many months. And again, we hope to be reminded of how so many of us owe our lives to the scientists who created the vaccines that allowed us to go outside again. This time, when the longed-for vaccine arrives, we won’t need to turn to history books to share the lesson.
- “’52 is Polio’s Worst Year.” New York Times, Dec. 7, 1952, 24. Return to text.
- “Polio Peril Eases, Schools Will Reopen.” New York Times, Sept. 10, 1949, 1. Return to text.
- See David Oshinsky’s Polio: An American Story (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006). Return to text.