Thursday, August 19, 2010

19 August 1916: Polio Epidemic Affects Travel Rules For Children

On this day in 1916, the following announcement was published on page 4 of the Athens Banner:

South Carolina And Infantile Paralysis

The following has been issued by the Seaboard Air Line Railway, concerning the South Carolina quarantine against infantile paralysis:

South Carolina. --"Railroad ticket [sic] will not be sold to children under sixteen (16) years of age unless a certificate is furnished by local Board of Health, where one exists, and where no local Board of Health exists, by family physician residing in the locality showing that child has not been in contact with case of Infantile Paralysis and has not had the disease this year."
The summer of 1916 saw the first epidemic of polio (poliomyelitis virus) in the United States. It began in New York City, where by the end of the year, they would have over 9,000 cases and 2,448 deaths. The epidemic was most prevalent along the east coast, and nationwide there were at least 27,000 cases and 6,000 deaths.

Little was known about the virus at the time. It had only been identified as a virus eight years earlier, and it was unclear how it spread, though it was prevalent in the summer. Despite the name "infantile paralysis," teens and adults could also catch the disease; Franklin Delano Roosevelt was 39 when he was stricken in August, 1921. In the early 1950s, 35% of those who contracted polio were adults.

The symptoms for polio mimicked a common flu: fever, aches, sore throat, stiffness, nausea, and fatigue, so the virus was not always immediately recognized as a more serious condition. Most of those who contracted the disease were not aware and had few, if any symptoms, and only 1% experienced permanent paralysis.

Even as late as the 1940s, the primary form of control for the disease was quarantine. When muscles affecting breathing were paralyzed, patients could be placed in a tank respirator (also known as an "iron lung"), but only a few hundred hospitals in the entire nation even accepted polio patients.

In 1934, Roosevelt and his law partner, Basil O'Connor, started "the Birthday Balls," celebrations on Roosevelt's birthday held all around the nation as a fundraiser to fight polio. The initial ball raised $1 million in donations. In 1937, Roosevelt established the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (later the March of Dimes), to help fund researchers looking for cures and vaccines. Among those they funded was Jonas Salk, in 1949.

The first polio vaccine was approved for use on April 12, 1955, the anniversary of Roosevelt's death. It was a an Inactivated Polio Vaccine (IPV) delivered by injection. An Oral Polio Vaccine (OPV) that used a live virus was developed by Albert Sabin in the late 1950s replaced the Salk vaccine in the United States until 2000, when the IPV became the recommended procedure again. In other parts of the world where the virus is still endemic, the OPV is still distributed because it provides intestinal immunity.

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