Sometimes a single word can send a frightening chill.
In the late 1940s and early ’50s, that word was “polio.” Midlanders who were children or young adults in that era remember the fear.
Only months after opening in 1948, Children’s Memorial Hospital in Omaha devoted the entire first floor of its north wing to polio cases.
Some children, their lungs weakened by the virus, were placed in the huge metal respirators known as iron lungs — a searing image from the era.
Many Midlanders now in their 60s and 70s will remember being forbidden by their parents to go to the movies or swimming pools during that time.
The worst, locally and nationally, arrived in 1952. That’s when the disease struck 2,252 people in Nebraska, 2,564 in Iowa and 57,879 for the country as a whole. Proportionally, The World-Herald reported, the polio incidence in Nebraska was the worst of any single state.
The tide turned in 1955 with the arrival of the vaccination invented by Dr. Jonas Salk, followed in the early 1960s by the oral vaccine developed by Dr. Albert Sabin. It should be remembered, though, that many polio survivors must cope with post-polio syndrome, involving extreme fatigue, muscular failure and difficulty breathing.
We mention this sobering history in order to note something heartening in the latest global health figures. The vaccination efforts by governments, nonprofit organizations and international health agencies have achieved remarkable results.
In 1980, there were 350,000 polio cases worldwide. By 1995, the number fell to 59,900. By 2000, it was 3,500.
Last year: only 385.
Indeed, the list of “polio-endemic countries” is now down to three nations: Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria.
Sometimes the world proves it’s possible to conquer a big problem. In this case, one vaccination at a time.