Vaccines are one of the most effective disease prevention tools we have and August is National Immunization Awareness Month. Countless deaths have been saved in the United States and across the world because of vaccines. We are waiting for a COVID-19 vaccine, which will greatly reduce illness and deaths. Let’s take a look back in history at the polio vaccine. Introduced in 1955, many of us have no memory of the impact this vaccine made across our country and around the world. Within 25 years, the United States had no new polio infections.
Thanks to vaccines, we prevent many serious diseases every year. Some, like polio, are gone or rare. Is it worthwhile to keep vaccinating for diseases we don’t see often? Absolutely. Vaccines keep people from getting infected and spreading disease to others. Vaccines keep diseases that used to cause epidemics from making a comeback. A vaccine is the most promising long-term solution for preventing COVID-19 as well. Scientists are on their way to developing a vaccine. Until then, we need to continue relying on trusted prevention tools.
What is polio?
Similar to COVID-19, polio is caused by a virus that is highly contagious and spread from person-to-person. It affects children and youth most often. Most people infected with polio have no symptoms at all. For those who do have symptoms, they are usually mild, like sore throat, fever, vomiting, stiff neck, or headache.
For a small number of people, the virus spreads to the nervous system, resulting in paralysis. Recovery from paralysis is rare and sometimes leads to death. We usually think of this serious effect of polio: needing assistance to walk or breathe. Some people who seem to fully recover from polio can develop muscle pain or weakness decades later. This is called post-polio syndrome.
How did polio affect communities?
The first documented polio outbreak in the United States was in 1894. Outbreaks returned with greater frequency starting in the early 1900’s, always in the warmer months. By the 1940s, the outbreaks were larger, more frequent, and more widespread.
It wasn’t well understood why some people had such severe disease and that caused a good deal of anxiety and fear, especially among parents. Without a vaccine available, public health officials worked with communities to limit the spread of infection. The efforts disrupted daily lives and included:
- Delaying the start of public school and, in some places, providing instruction over the radio.
- Closing public gathering places like pools, churches, and movie theaters.
- Canceling community and entertainment events.
- Restricting travel within and between towns.
- Quarantining households and even entire towns.
The polio vaccine arrives
Even in 2020, polio has no cure. Prevention is the most effective tool to reduce and eliminate it. Thankfully, the most successful tool in our polio prevention toolbox is the inactivated polio vaccine (IPV) developed by Dr. Jonas Salk in 1955. Its routine use dropped the number of polio cases per year in the United States from 35,000 in the 1940s to less than 100 in the 1960s. The U.S. has been polio-free since 1979, due to the combined efforts of parents and healthcare providers to vaccinate children on schedule.
Vaccine-preventable diseases are still a threat
Curious to hear a first-hand account? Ask an elder to recall what they remember as a child or young adult about polio outbreaks and what the vaccine meant to their community. Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, you have the power to safely protect yourself and your family against many vaccine-preventable diseases. Talk with your doctor or nurse about whether you’ve missed any routine vaccines for yourself or your child.