HARRISONBURG — Like many kids his age, James Hartt as a teen in the ’60s enjoyed passing the time with a bit of naive, reckless abandonment. One way Hartt found to amuse himself was leaping from a nearby bridge and sticking the landing on the other side, until one day, Hartt woke up unable to move his legs. Immediately, fear set in that it could be poliomyelitis — every parent’s waking fear in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Fortunately, a doctor deduced Hartt’s diagnosis was two sprained legs as a result of his airborne adventures, but many children around the world were not as fortunate. When it became available, Hartt got his vaccine. Nearly 70 years later, Hartt senses a stark parallel to the excitement he felt then as he prepared to receive his second COVID-19 vaccine this weekend.
“If you look back, polio and this thing is almost the same type of thing,” Hartt said. “Polio, they used iron lungs back then. Now they’re using … those air things that they run out of all the time. The symptoms are very close. The way they treated it was very close.”
Poliomyelitis — better known as polio — is an infectious disease that most commonly affects children, causing paralysis. Summer of 1894, the U.S. experienced its first polio epidemic, but it wasn’t until 1955 that Dr. Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine was approved for nationwide inoculation. Shortly after, a second vaccine option was approved for manufacturing with easier admission at a cheaper cost by Dr. Albert Bruce Sabin in 1961.
After cases peaked in 1952, with roughly 58,000 people diagnosed with polio in the U.S., the final case of wild-virus polio in the U.S. was reported in 1979.
Polio impacted thousands of children annually into the late 1950s. It was typically identified by paralyzed limbs, most frequently the legs. By 1957, there were less than 6,000 cases, and it had dropped to 120 cases by 1964, thanks to vaccines.
The coronavirus pandemic is harder to identify physically and largely plagues the lungs, which can lead to pneumonia, respiratory failure, septic shock or death, in severe cases. Now those same children who were most vulnerable to the polio epidemic are grown and at greater risk for severe illness from COVID-19.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, two doses of Salk’s polio vaccine are 90% effective or more and three doses boosts the effectiveness to 99-100%. Pfizer and Moderna report their vaccines show approximately 95% efficacy at preventing both mild and severe symptoms of COVID-19.
“I believe in these shots, and I believe they’re doing the best thing they can,” Hartt said.
According to the March of Dimes, the leading global agency fighting polio, up to 95% of people infected with polio were asymptomatic.
Salem-based Rotarian William “Bill” Long is locally known as a polio expert. His father-in-law contracted polio in his youth, which stunted the growth of one leg. The connection inspired Long, who owns three iron lungs — a clunking beast of machinery that contracted lungs for those who could not breathe on their own — to allow the machinery to travel between Rotary clubs for educational purposes.
Long said the demand for hospital care was overwhelming, and Memorial and Crippled Children’s Hospital in Roanoke was the primary care facility for sick children in the southern Valley.
“A whole floor with nothing but iron lungs on it,” he said.
In the Jan. 25, 1946, edition of James Madison University’s newspaper, The Breeze, W.L. Baldwin, state chairman for the polio fundraiser, is quoted as saying, “It is believed that over the last two-year period, Virginia has been hit harder by poliomyelitis than any other state in the nation.”
According to the CDC, there are 27 million total cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. and 486,466 total deaths, as of Wednesday.
Belmont resident Nancy O’Hare is scheduled to receive her second vaccine by the end of February, and she vividly remembers the fear that haunted her days and nights mothering a 5-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter while polio raged on.
Back then, O’Hare remembers going to doctor’s offices to receive the polio vaccine while children received sugar cubes topped with Sabin’s oral vaccine from schools or pediatrician offices.
Verona native Donn Meyer said he can remember his parents taking him to Fort Defiance High School at a very young age to receive the polio vaccine on a sugar cube in the ’60s. Back then, images of iron lungs were plastered on every screen, and harrowing stories of sick children written in papers.