Remembering the polio epidemic of the 1940s
During the polio epidemic of 1949, there were 2,720 deaths in the United States and 47,173 cases reported in Canada and the United Kingdom.
Growing up in the western part of Virginia, I was very much aware of this outbreak in the late 1940s and 1950s. Wytheville patients were treated at a regional hospital in Roanoke. I was born in the early 1940s at Roanoke Memorial — the hospital later became known as The Crippled Children’s Hospital of Virginia. Patients inside were often in iron lungs, wheelchairs or walking on crutches while wearing braces. I can remember my parents driving my sister and me through affected areas in the western part of the state with the car windows rolled up. It was uncomfortable riding in the car until we drove away from those areas of exposure.
Few diseases frightened parents more in the early part of the 20th century than polio. This disease struck often during the summer months, sweeping through towns in epidemic proportions every few years. Though most people recovered quickly from polio, some suffered temporary or permanent paralysis and even death. Many polio survivors were disabled for life. They served as a visible painful reminder to society of the enormous toll this disease took on young lives.
In the United States, children are recommended to receive inactive polio vaccine at 2 and 4 months of age. The vaccine is then given twice before children enter elementary school. Because of widespread vaccinations, polio was eliminated from the Northern Hemisphere in 1994. The disease still circulates in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and parts of Africa.
President Franklin Roosevelt caught polio when he was 39, leaving him crippled and in a wheelchair.
Robert (“Bobby”) J. Spiers Jr.