Now it’s children: Is this the polio moment for covid?

by Bob Schwartz

The story of polio in America has been relevant since the covid pandemic began.

Polio is a highly communicable virus that can cause irreparable damage to the central nervous system. Most famously in American history, it was the disease that handicapped President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a handicap that was hidden from the public but that was an open secret among all who knew him.

Polio had been managed into the twentieth century. But by the 1950s America was suffering with a polio epidemic—an epidemic that predominately affected children, leaving them with lifelong weakness in their limbs, or in iron lungs to help them breathe.

Frantic projects to find a vaccine eventually yielded results. Two types were developed: the dead-virus vaccine Salk and the live-virus vaccine Sabin. Unfortunately, unlike the strict review and manufacturing process we have today, vaccine review then was not stringent enough to catch one harmful bad batch of the live-virus vaccine. Still, the vaccines were overwhelmingly safe and effective.

More than that, parents who had been scared every single day that their children would get polio were beyond relieved. They rushed for vaccinations, which then became a regular part of required public health. Today, polio has been eradicated. Still, the immediate and long-term suffering it caused can’t be erased.

Recent reports are that covid hospitalizations among children are increasing in frightening numbers (one New York children’s hospital reports a 500% increase in one week). So it is time to ask those who have chosen to forego behaviors to reduce the spread of covid: If not for yourself, or your neighbors, or strangers in your community, what about children—your children, their children? Seventy years ago, parents stood in long lines to wait for a vaccine shot. What are you waiting for?

PBS American Experience produced the episode The Polio Crusade.

The first part:

The complete episode.