Polio and Coronavirus: When the Victims Were Children

Although polio is only a memory in the United States, the current pandemic is stirring up feelings analogous to when this insidious crippler terrified a nation. Like the Great Influenza of 1918, polio offers historical perspective. Both the poliovirus and the coronavirus rely on “silent carriers”—those showing no immediate symptoms—to spread the disease, inciting a fearful sense of uncertainty. Both target specific, if dramatically different, age groups: COVID-19 seems especially lethal for the elderly, polio for the young.

In San Angelo, some businesses remained open, simply hoping to survive. The local cleaning establishment vowed to disinfect its equipment before each pressing and wash. The Sherwin-Williams Paint and Hardware Company promised its loyal customers toxic bug spray free of charge. (“Bring your own container,” it advised.) Agents hawked special “polio insurance,” while the town chiropractor boasted that he could prevent the disease by “keeping your child’s body correctly adjusted.”

The epidemic lasted until early fall, when the cool winds of October helped extinguish its destructive reach. In 1949, the United States reported about 40,000 polio cases, one for every 3,775 people. San Angelo, meanwhile, reported 420 cases, one for every 124 people. Eighty-four of the city’s children would be permanently paralyzed, and 28 would die. The San Angelo polio outbreak would stack up, percentage-wise, as one of the most destructive ever recorded anywhere in the world.

Numbers aside, its patterns were all too familiar. The epidemic preyed on children, doing its worst damage in the summer months. It appeared to hit the tidy, stable neighborhoods of San Angelo far harder than those marked by poverty and squalor, a reversal of the belief that filth triggers disease. Much remains unknown about polio because the development of two effective vaccines in the 1950s and early ’60s made further research moot. Why did it strike almost exclusively in warm weather? Why did most of its victims appear to come from middle-class surroundings? And why was epidemic polio primarily a disease of the 20th century that struck the world’s more developed nations, especially the United States?

There are no certain answers. Some believe that polio, a virus transmitted primarily through oral-fecal contact, not airborne droplets as with the coronavirus, is uniquely suited to warm-weather transmission. Others see polio’s dramatic spread in the 1940s and ’50s in terms of cleanliness. As Americans grew more germ-conscious and sanitary-minded, there was less chance that they would encounter poliovirus very early in life, when the disease is milder and maternal antibodies provide temporary protection.

“Do you want to spend the rest of your life in an iron lung?” Children heard these words when they begged to go swimming or play outside, when they jumped through a puddle or licked a friend’s ice-cream cone, when they refused to take a nap or balked at the daily home polio test (“Chin to chest, touch your toes”). Hitting with full force at the very height of the Baby Boom era, a time of unprecedented prosperity and population growth, polio became the crack in the middle-class picture window, a summer plague dotted with visual reminders: wheelchairs, crutches, leg braces, breathing devices, withered limbs.