Fear and caution


This column must start with a spoiler alert. I always try to select subjects to share with my hometown readers that are nostalgic and hopefully amusing. This is a time when we must be afraid and careful. Activities are cancelled and grocery shelves are bare. Not to be an alarmist, but we must obey the regulations and not contribute to the spreading. As with any crisis, if we keep up our guard, it will get better.

My thoughts go back to a time when the name of another disease put us in mortal fear—infantile paralysis, better known as polio. People and especially parents were as frightened in the early part of the 20th Century as we are today. The epidemic became most serious in the ‘40s and ‘50s. It struck in the summer months, sweeping through towns in epidemics every few years.

Children seemed more at risk, but the virus had no respect for age or status. Victims ranged from the president of the United States to Beverly Flanders, granddaughter of a bank president to a little boy named Franklin in my third-grade classroom. There was no known treatment for this highly contagious disease, but different types determined the severity. Though some recovered quickly from polio, some suffered temporary or permanent paralysis and even death. Many survivors were disabled for life, including Beverly and Franklin Roosevelt, and some, including my classmate, Franklin, did not survive. Known facts were there was no cure and only prevention could combat it. Warm Springs, Georgia became known as a rehabilitation center for polio. The warm waters of the springs were therapeutic for muscle involvement. Patients whose paralysis involved breathing received artificial breathing support in an iron lung which completely enclosed the body except for the head.

As I said in first paragraph, it did get better. Better resources made treatments more successful. Then, a miracle answered many prayers. In 1953, Dr. Jonas Salk developed the first successful vaccine for polio. He was followed by Dr. Albert Sabin developing the oral vaccine in the ‘60s. My children were able to get shots as babies, so I did not have to live through the terror that my parents experienced.

I have vivid memories of the pool being closed and not being allowed to go to the park. In 1946, silver dimes were minted bearing the head of President Roosevelt, and a new slogan covered the country, “The March of Dimes.” Packets were filled with these dimes by children and donated to The March of Dimes, which helped bring an end to the threat of polio.

The Dixie often ran a short film of movie singer Howard Keel walking through a hospital filled with children in iron lungs as he sang “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Then the lights came on and a collection was taken for the March of Dimes. We gave our popcorn money.

There is no comparison in finding a vaccine for COVID-19 and the many years waiting for a polio vaccine. A successful vaccine will be developed that will keep us well. The pioneer researchers fighting polio had far less knowledge or resources than today. For several years during the fight against polio, our country was in the midst of World War II.

These tough times will end, so, my friends, stay put, wash your hands, and stay well.

Write to Shirley at spstwiss@gmail.com.


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