In the 1940s and 1950s, we had the polio epidemics. Hence the establishment of the March of Dimes, which to this day exists for children with birth and developmental defects. I remember those white cardboard cards at school with slots for us to slip in the dimes we brought from home. Dimes, of course, went a lot further back then.
No one was sure how polio was transmitted, except it seemed to have something to do with crowds. It hit mostly children and younger people. A former colleague of mine contracted it in 1942 while her husband was overseas during World War II. She was in her 20's with two small children. Her mother took care of the children while she went to Warm Springs for the warm water therapy that was proving beneficial. She recovered and returned to her home with a brace on her leg and a crutch that she needed for the rest of her life. She couldn't even get up at night to go to the bathroom without her brace. But she worked, cooked amazingly, had a beautiful garden and reared two outstanding children. She learned to cope, you see. Since her husband died in the war, her own survival meant her children were not orphaned, a good thing.
Seeing persons with the permanently atrophied arms and or legs used to be common. Now many of you have never seen a polio victim. In extreme cases, some few persons survived in an iron lung - an electronic, coffin-like device where the whole body except for the head was inside with the machine forcing the lungs in and out. Such persons suffered such severe paralysis, their lungs couldn't function without mechanical help. Some recovered enough to get out of the machines. Others didn't.
It was impossible at the onset to tell who would live, and with what degree of paralysis, and who would die. Doctors could do almost nothing for those infected. No, it didn't seem to hit all the children in the family, usually just one. And then, in the next epedemic, it might take another, or not.
We never had an epidemic in Alamogordo, New Mexico, but El Paso, Texas, 90 miles away, did have them. The epidemic, of course swept across the Rio Grande to the sister city of Juarez, Mexico. We had two or three victims in Alamogordo, but they mostly had been somewhere the epidemic was known to be. Our small town could not manage such serious illness, and they were transferred to the El Paso hospitals.
I remember one particular summer in 1953 when polio raged in El Paso. As a kid, I didn't really understand what the fuss was all about, but I remember I couldn't go swimming that summer, and I couldn't go to the movies. In August, when it was particularly bad in the distant city, my parents seriously discussed whether to attend church or not. Mother was a preacher's daughter. My dad taught Sunday School. This was extremely serious stuff that they would consider staying home, and it got my attention. They decided we would continue to attend, but come straight home afterwards.
It was suspected gamma globulin shots might increase immunity to the disease, so for years, I had that huge, painful shot in my buttocks each summer, even when polio was not epidemic. I know others my age who had the shots, too. It was later discovered these painful shots did not help at all. It was something our parents could do. SOMEthing. There was so little else.
Jonas Salk was a hero to the world when he developed a vaccine for the polio virus. I was a freshman in college in 1961 when I finally had the opportunity to walk over to a neighborhood school from my college room and take my first dose dribbled on a sugar cube. There were three doses to be taken, as I remember. Even at 18, I had the sense to know I really needed to get those doses, and I did.
I never knew anyone who died from it, although I heard about the daughter of someone my parents knew who was in an iron lung. I had classmates occasionally with a withered arm or a leg brace. I didn't meet the colleague with the leg brace until 1965.
Polio, however, was such a devastating disease that we were all aware of it. We feared it.
I hear 30,000 people die every year from the flu, mostly the elderly or already debilitated. I have no idea how many of these people who die have had flu shots. Certainly, some of them have had the shots, get sick and die anyway. That's said.
My impression is that one reason for the fear of the H1N1 strain is the lack of a vaccine. I understand medical people are also wary of how contagious it is, or how virulent. We still have a tough time fighting viruses. We will get these answers, and in the meantime the precautions--handwashing, not congregating, etc., etc., etc. --either seems to be working or it was a weak virus in the first place.
New viruses arise all the time. Polio is mostly gone, but AIDS is here. Medical officials around the world are convinced that, sooner or later, we will have some illness that will kill many people. That seems logical.
But I remember the hot summers when I couldn't go swimming, or to the air-conditioned movie theater for my whole summer vacation because of polio. In the United States, much of our population has no memory of deadly epidemics. For those of us who do remember, it was so long ago that perhaps we have just been jarred awake.
Life changes. Old dangers pass. New ones come along. And throughout, the basic nature of human beings stays the same.