The COVID-19 Fear Mirrors the Polio Panic a Century Ago

A polio display in Jamaica Health Center, August 31, 1955. (Department of Health Collection, NYC Municipal Archives)

In June of 1916, the Brooklyn Eagle reported that many frantic parents were reporting that their children suddenly were unable to hold a bottle or move their legs. They approached their parish priests for help in a predominantly Italian section of Flatbush, Brooklyn. New York City health officials were soon alerted and conducted house to house inspections throughout the immigrant neighborhood.

The investigation yielded stunning results. Poliomyelitis, a virus, was determined to be the cause of the disabling afflictions. Though not a new disease this outbreak alarmed federal officials prompting one to regard the resurgent poliomyelitis as, “a menace for the future that is very real,” according to a report from the Yale University School of Medicine.

Polio, the abbreviation of the medical term soon adopted by newspaper editors, soon spread throughout the country claiming approximately 6,000 lives including the lives of 2,343 New Yorkers. Tragically, children under 5 comprised 80 percent of the paralysis cases. Though only 1 in 200 patients experienced paralysis, most of those that did were children with vulnerable immune systems.

However, even healthy adults could be stricken. In 1921, after a day of vigorous activity while vacationing, future president Franklin Delano Roosevelt woke up to find that his legs were no longer responsive. Initially, doctors hypothesized that the 39-year old Roosevelt contracted the virus while swimming, but they came to believe that his attendance at a Boy Scout Jamboree in upstate New York was the likely culprit.

The outbreak that began in 1916 stirred anxiety for decades. Just a mention of the word “polio” engendered fear among American parents because it struck randomly and the source of its transmission was unknown. Many children stricken with the illness suffered paralysis and those who did get sick were sequestered in isolation to prevent infecting family members. The epidemic reached across the country, but at the beginning, the epicenter of the contagion was thickly settled New York City, just as it is now during the COVID-19 crisis. In 2020, Big Apple residents are once again practicing social distancing and quarantine measures on the frontier of a seemingly random, debilitating and highly infectious disease.

The parallels between the polio epidemic and the COVID-19 crisis are many. COVID-19 appears, though, to be deadlier. The staggering number of lives lost in New York City due to coronavirus has reached 12,199 as of April 17. During the 1916 polio outbreak, 1,922 New Yorkers died and approximately 1,000 became paralyzed. Both diseases are contagious, the source of transmission unclear, and the individual impact unpredictable.

“With both COVID-19 and polio there is no ability to determine who would succumb or recover,” said Dr. Heather G. Wooten, professor of the history of medicine at the University of Texas.

“At the time, we knew that polio was contagious and manifested in the warm weather months but could not figure out how it was transmitted,” said history professor Wooten, who is also the author of Battling the Terrifying Unknown, premised on the polio spike after World War II. “The vast majority of cases were asymptomatic and 98 percent of youth were unaware they had it. Some would have a mild illness with symptoms similar to the flu and recover in a week but paralytic polio would cause weakness and quickly develop into paralysis,” she said.

Polio is an intestinal tract infection spread by hand to mouth contact. The virus enters the body through the mouth down the digestive tract and is excreted in the stool. In a small amount of cases the virus permeates the central nervous system destroying the motor neurons that stimulate muscle fiber, causing paralysis. 

A New York Times account on July 26, 1916 told the story of one man desperately trying to get help for a sick child, conveying the wrenching loss and helplessness experienced by so many during this period: “Unable to obtain a physician, he put the boy into an automobile and drove to the Smith Infirmary but the child died on the way and the doctors would not receive the body. He drove around Staten Island with the boy’s body for hours looking for someone who would receive it.”

Baseless rumors pertaining to the source of polio’s transmission spread as quickly as the virus itself. For example, household pets were suspected as carriers and approximately 72,000 cats and 8,000 dogs were subsequently euthanized, according to the New York Times of July 26, 1916.

That summer, many outside the five boroughs blamed New Yorkers and adopted measures to keep them out of their own communities. In Long Island, police officers deployed to train stations and major roadways. A similar measure was implemented at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic by Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo. Florida also established roadblocks at the state borders informing incoming visitors that they would be required to self-quarantine for 14 days.

Polio, triggered a race to develop a vaccine, as COVID-19 has today with scientists scrambling to find a remedy to prevent the virus and medicines to treat it. The arduous search for an effective polio vaccine spanned nearly four decades. In fact, in 1955, 65 years ago this week, a team of researchers at the University of Pittsburgh led by Dr. Jonas Salk developed a vaccine for poliomyelitis. The landmark discovery of the vaccine saved future generations from the devastating effects of polio.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has continually stressed that any return to normalcy will be preceded by a COVID-19 vaccine. However, according to the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci, no scientifically proven therapies exist for coronavirus yet and a vaccine is still about a year and half away. “That doesn’t mean that we’re not going to do everything we can to make things that have even a hint of efficacy more available,” he said.

A table details the number of polo cases in New York City from 1954 to 1963. (Vital Statistics, Department of Health, NYC Municipal Library)

By the late 1940’s polio was the nation’s most feared disease and shrouded in mystery. It could strike arbitrarily leaving behind the vestiges of unfulfilled lives in the form of crutches, wheelchairs and leg braces. Thought to be spread by contact with bodies of water, each June newspapers featured photos of deserted beaches and published statistical data relative to the age, sex and type of polio paralysis victims.

Polio patients, like COVID-19 patients, were quarantined, sequestered from loved ones, and endured their ordeal in isolation. Both diseases were dangerous to the most vulnerable with one distinction. Children were most susceptible to polio, while COVID-19 has claimed a high percentage of senior citizens.

This irony is not lost on Hugh Connolly, 72, who lived through the polio epidemic.

“Back then, I remember how much parents were worried about it. The nuns at school lined us up and made sure we took the sugar cubes with the vaccine,” he said. “Today during the coronavirus, kids are worried about their parents” said Connolly, a Queens native.

Health department staff and volunteers outside a mobile vaccine station on 84th Street and Amsterdam Avenue in 1961. (Department of Health Collection, NYC Municipal Archives)

Although the catalyst for the COVID-19 pandemic is still being debated, the genesis of the polio spike in the mid-twentieth century has a broad consensus. Paradoxically, experts point to ever expanding standards of personal hygiene exhibited by Americans in the years after World War II as the major contributing factor to the rapid spread of a virulent polio virus.

Due to a cleaner environment that naturally correlates with a higher standard of living, children were less likely to come into contact with poliovirus early in life when the infection is milder and maternal antibodies provide temporary protection. So, ironically, the improved quality of life realized for the majority of Americans brought risks as well as rewards.

“Prior to 1940, many Americans lived with outdoor plumbing and in conditions that generally were not as sanitized. Kids would develop very mild cases and become immune,” said Wooten. “After the war, our standard of living improved and the cleaner our environment became the longer it took to catch it-but it was much more virulent.” Wooten added that by the time of the baby boom, 76 million children in the United States had no immunity.

Thus far, the COVID-19 pandemic has been the cause of death for 20,000 Americans with approximately half of the fatalities in New York City. Government leaders and public health officials continue to assess the scale and scope of this multidimensional disaster as it continues to unfold.

Despite the fact that a coronavirus vaccine is not yet developed, Wooten believes that lessons learned from the polio experience can offer a degree of hope in our current circumstances.

“It is incredibly important to have faith in science, a firm response from the federal government and a strong commitment from the community,” she said.