The coronavirus has disrupted lives and thrown the global economy into a tailspin.  A large portion of the world’s current inhabitants have never experienced such a life-changing pandemic.  However, most older folks, those born before 1955, can remember firsthand what it is like to live with the very real possibility of a deadly virus striking.  Polio, also known as “infantile paralysis,” was a dreaded plague in their early years and caused widespread trepidation and heartbreak.

In 1955, the first polio vaccine was approved and made available in the United States.  This particular vaccine was administered by injection.  In 1961, an oral vaccine came into commercial use.

Until 1955, polio had been a killer from the beginnings of civilization.  For instance, an Egyptian carving from about 1400 BC shows a young man with a deformity like one often caused by polio.  In the early 1900s, it reached epidemic proportions in the most economically and medically advanced countries.  Future U. S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt contracted polio in 1921 and was paralyzed from the waist down.

My childhood recollections from the early 1950s are still vivid.  Seeing or hearing of friends and acquaintances in iron lungs and others who died from polio was a usual part of life.  People went about their daily lives but became much more concerned in the summers when polio was at its most dangerous.

Every summer, polio instilled justifiable fear into parents with young children.  When the virus struck a community hard, movie theaters and swimming pools were closed as a precaution.  I recall my parents on an automobile trip taking a circuitous route in order to avoid a town with a high number of polio cases.  In a time when most cars did not have air conditioning, keeping windows up in the summer to guard against the polio virus was an unpleasant experience. 

The coronavirus is creating the same kind of societal dread that polio once did.  A difference is that people in the era before the polio vaccine were subjected to fear every summer.  Folks knew that they had no protection against the killer other than a prudent reliance on what today is being referred to as self-distancing.

The lesson from those of us who routinely lived with the threat of polio is to be cautious and strictly follow health protocols, but, at the same time, do not let a virus be the focal point of your existence.  The virus shall pass.

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