Science Matters: Polio I

Program Information

Series: A Moment in Time
Duration: 00:03:48
Year Produced: 2009
Description:

Summertime in the 1930s and 1940s was exciting for children out of school, but a time of fear as well. Parents were worried their children might contract polio.

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Transcript

Lead: Summertime in the 1930s and 1940s was exciting for children out of school, but a time of fear as well. Parents were worried their children might contract polio.

Intro: A Moment In Time with Dan Roberts.

Content: Poliomyelitis is a viral infection of the intestinal tract. Most cases of polio were mild--headache, fever, sore throat, and depression--with the patient usually recovered within three or four days. In fewer and more serious cases, the virus penetrates the stomach and intestinal tract, enters the lymphatic system, then the bloodstream, and then attacks the motor nerve cells of the spinal cord; if the nerve damage is severe, paralysis will result. Occurring most frequently in children, polio is also known as infantile paralysis.

There is evidence that polio was known in Egyptian, Greek and Roman civilizations. However, it reached epidemic levels in the first half of the 20th century in developed countries. In the United States there were between 30,000-50,000 cases reported annually during the 1940s and early 1950s. Ironically, this epidemic was the result of improved sanitation, plumbing and personal hygiene. Though these helped arrest the spread of other diseases, they actually enhanced the danger of polio.

Prior to the modern era, most people lived in filth, exposed to the breeding grounds of many diseases. Because very young children were progressively living in relatively cleaner conditions they were not exposed to the polio virus, particularly found in fecal matter, and therefore did not acquire immunity through early exposure. Without acquired immunity early in life, a person became more susceptible when exposure occurred at a later age. This was the case of Franklin Delano Roosevelt who, in the prime of life in the early 1920s, was afflicted with poliomyelitis.

Next Time: America declares war on polio.

Research assistance by Ann Johnson. At the University of Richmond, this is Dan Roberts.