Polio is an infectious viral disease that enters through the mouth or nose, then travels to the spinal cord. There it attacks nerves that control muscle activity, causing temporary or permanent paralysis. Usually polio affects leg, arm, stomach and back muscles. But if it paralyzes chest muscles needed for breathing, it can be fatal.
Just as World War II ended, the most severe epidemics hit the nation. Most polio outbreaks began in the summer. Since children were most frequently affected, communities reacted with dread, often closing down public swimming pools and movie theaters. The epidemic peaked in North Carolina and the United States in 1952, when a record 57,628 cases were reported nationally. Some referred to the national state of panic as “polio hysteria.”
The following year, Dr. Jonas Salk and his associates developed an injectable polio vaccine made from inactivated virus. Schoolchildren by the thousands were vaccinated, reducing the incidence of polio by almost 90 percent within two years. Later, the Salk vaccine was replaced by the Sabin oral vaccine, which was easier and less expensive to administer.
Today polio has been eradicated in the United States, where the last case caused by “wild” virus was reported in 1979. Worldwide, while vaccination campaigns continue, hundreds of new cases are still reported each year.
Polio killed many victims by paralyzing the muscles needed for breathing. But many more survived, thanks to a device invented in 1929, the iron lung. The patient lay on a bed that could slide in and out of a large metal tank. At one end was a motor-powered “bellows” that pumped air in and out of the chamber. As air pressure increased in the chamber, it pushed down on the patient’s chest, forcing air out of the lungs. When the pressure decreased, the chest expanded, taking air into the lungs.
Some patients regained their ability to breathe on their own after a few weeks or months in an iron lung. Others remained dependent on the device for years.
The cost of an iron lung was high—about $1,500 during the 1930s, the average price of a home at that time. To help families afford respiratory treatment and medical equipment such as braces and crutches, North Carolina Blue Plans began offering additional coverage for polio.