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Monday, 27 March 2017


Poliomyelitis, often called polio or infantile paralysis, has existed for thousands of years, with depictions of the disease in ancient art.

An Egyptian stele thought to represent a polio victim, 18th Dynasty (1403–1365 BC). By Fixi

The disease was first recognized as a distinct condition by the English physician Michael Underwood in 1789, where he referred to polio as "a debility of the lower extremities."

The young Sir Walter Scott survived a childhood bout of polio that would leave him lame in his right leg for the rest of his life.

The virus that causes polio was first identified in 1908 by Karl Landsteiner.

On August 10, 1921, the 39-year-old Franklin D. Roosevelt went for a swim in the cold Bay of Fundy. Returning home he sat down in his wet swimming suit to read his mail and retired to bed with what he thought was a bad cold only to find polio gripping him. Soon his legs were paralyzed and from then on he couldn't stand up without the help of leg braces or walk more than a few steps.

Although the paralysis resulting from polio had no cure Roosevelt refused to believe that he was permanently paralyzed. He tried a wide range of therapies, but none had any effect. Nevertheless he became convinced of the benefits of hydrotherapy, and in 1926 he bought a resort at Warm Springs, Georgia, where he founded a hydrotherapy center for the treatment of polio patients, and spent a lot of time there in the 1920s. This was in part to escape from his mother, who tried to resume control of his life following his illness.

Roosevelt convinced many people that he was improving, which he believed to be essential to running for public office. By the time Franklin Roosevelt died in 1945, he had been President of the United States for 12 years. Roosevelt managed to conceal his disability so successfully many people did not realize the extent of it. His polio was the biggest deception in the history of presidential illnesses.

Roosevelt's deception was pulled off with the full co-operation of the press, newsreels never showed him being wheeled or carried and of the 35,000 photos taken of Roosevelt only two show him in a wheelchair.

Rare photograph of FDR in a wheelchair, taken February 1941. By FDR Presidential Library & Museum

Radio personality Eddie Cantor invented the name "March of Dimes" for the donation campaigns of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (polio), a play on the "March of Time" newsreels. He began the first campaign on his own radio show in January 1938, asking people to mail a dime to the nation's most famous polio victim, President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Other entertainers joined in the appeal via their own shows, and the White House mailroom was deluged with 2,680,000 dimes.

Josef Goebbels, champion of the Nazi creed of selective breeding, was called the ‘poison dwarf’ due to his slight frame and club foot caused by childhood polio.

The 1952 U.S. polio epidemic was the worst outbreak in the nation's history. Of nearly 58,000 cases reported that year, 3,145 people died and 21,269 were left with mild to disabling paralysis, with most of its victims being children.

In the 1950s, many victims of Polio had to use iron lungs. They had to click to signal a nurse when they couldn't breathe after power went out. Then a nurse would come and manually operate the machine.

Dr. Jonas Salk, the associate professor of bacteriology and head of the Virus Research Laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine began working on the polio vaccine in 1948.

After several years of research, which involved controversially injecting children with test versions, Dr. Jonas Salk announced on a national radio show on March 26, 1953, that he had successfully tested a vaccine against poliomyelitis.

Dr Jonas Salk
In 1954, clinical trials using the Salk vaccine and a placebo began on nearly two million American schoolchildren. On April 12, 1955, it was announced that the vaccine was effective and safe.

Soon, Dr Jonas Salk's polio vaccine was being distributed nationally in the United States. It proved so successful that by 1961 the incidence of polio had decreased by 95 per cent. It was one of the first successful attempts to produce an immunization against a virus.

Jonas Salk declined to patent his polio vaccine. "There is no patent," he said. "Could you patent the sun?"

Jonas Salk later married Francoise Gilot, the former wife of Pablo Picasso.

Most of the time, polio has no symptoms unless the polio virus gets into the blood. In about 0.5 of cases the virus enters the brain or spinal cord, which can cause muscles to become paralyzed. In those with muscle weakness about 2% to 5% of children and 15% to 30% of adults die.

A man's right leg, affected by polio

Worldwide, polio has become much less common in the past few decades. In 1988, there were about 350,000 cases of polio in the world. By 2007, the number of cases of polio in the world had decreased by over 99.9%, to just 1,652 cases.

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