We’ve been through this, or a version of this, before. The last time it was like this it was called Poliomyelitis or Polio for short. Poliomyelitis, a highly contagious disease with symptoms including common flu-like symptoms such as sore throat, fever, tiredness, headache, a stiff neck and stomach ache. For a few though, polio affected the brain and spinal cord, which could lead meningitis and, for one out of 200, paralysis. For two to 10 of those suffering paralysis, the end result was death.
In 1946, President Harry Truman declared polio a threat to the United States and called on Americans to do everything possible to combat it.
“The fight against infantile paralysis cannot be a local war,” Truman declared in a speech broadcast from the White House. “It must be nationwide. It must be total war in every city, town and village throughout the land. For only with a united front can we ever hope to win any war.”
In the midst of the 1946 epidemic, the country was urged to Shut Down and Quarantine. Especially hard hit was Minnesota with an alarming death rate among children. Polio was seen as targeting kids, five and under – although the age range was still wide. So, like many states, a policy of Stay At Home was instituted, much like it has been now.
Schools were closed, parks and public gathering places were held off-limits and America generally went into lock-down mode for much of 1946. By the end of the year, some 24,000 cases had been reported, 3,000 of those in Minnesota alone.
In retrospect, not nearly as bad as what we’re seeing now with COVID-19, but Polio was a disease that struck particular fear in a lot of people – just the sight of the iron lung alone – plus, it had been around a very long time. It wasn’t until the 1950s that a successful vaccine was produced.
Hopefully, we won’t have to wait until the next decade for a vaccine, but for a reminder of what America was doing during the last big epidemic, here is program, part of the Stay At Home series aimed at kids and produced by WCCO in Minneapolis, and featuring none other than former Minneapolis Mayor, senator, vice-President and Presidential hopeful Hubert Humphrey reading the Sunday comics.
At least there was some humor.