Polio is gradually disappearing from our everyday experience. Except for a few pockets in Africa, where locals believe the vaccine is used to sterilize Muslims, and in remote parts of South Asia, the disease has been eradicated. With any luck the disease will join smallpox in my lifetime as an issue in history books.
When I was a child in the 1950s, polio was a serious threat. Occasionally I’d hear about a friend or neighbor who contracted polio and died. My older twin sisters were hospitalized after both contracted polio, but they were very fortunate. One suffered no known damage. The other had only minor skeletal damage to her foot, discovered many years later.
I remember very well going with my father to get the polio vaccine. We stood in a long line at the local elementary school. My father told me what a wonderful event this was, and what a relief it would be for parents and children to have the shot. Maybe I remember the event so well because it was so important to my father. I still remember the scene in the school auditorium as well as the fact that I did not mind the shot.
Throughout my years growing up I have many memories of friends and others who bore the effects of polio. My friend Eddie, who was about two years older than me, carried his left arm close to his chest. It looked as though it belonged on a small child, a miniaturized version of his right arm. It was, I think, completely useless, discolored, and about half the length of his unaffected arm. I wondered at the time why he did not have it removed. He had no other side effects as I recall.
I have a vivid memory of what must have been the old Salt Lake County Hospital located at 21st South and State Street. I looked through a window and saw a line of iron lungs with a child in each of them. The memory is old enough and clear enough that I am sure I saw it, although I don’t know the circumstances. Maybe it was when my sisters were in the hospital, and perhaps my mother was carrying me. I would have been about three years old at the time.
Though the disease is gone, it is still somewhat common to see people born before 1955 with a polio defect. Many of these have suffered due to post-polio symptoms and the effects of the debilitating disease. Almost everyone my age knows of a friend or relative who is in a wheelchair, or on crutches, or who has died early due to the disease.
I find it incomprehensible that some parents do not vaccinate their children against polio, or some of the other curable diseases. Witnessing some of those who have contracted polio would convince almost any skeptic to rethink.