Poliomyelitis, or polio, is a viral disease that enters the body through the mouth. Most people with polio infections experience no symptoms. Those who do, experience symptoms similar to the flu. Few infected people contract paralysis but for those who do, it often spells death. Paralytic polio kills by paralyzing muscles, usually those used to breathe, and for most of history nothing could be done about it.
Dr. Salk: How Polio Spreads
During the 1950s, when the polio epidemic raged strongest, people lived in perpetual fear of contracting it. Thousands of people from across the country were dying from polio and thousands more were spending their last days confined to artificial breathing machines called iron lungs. Polio attacked mostly children because their immune systems were weaker, but adults were vulnerable too. To avoid contracting it, doctors advised good hygiene, avoiding new people, public areas, and exhaustion. In response to the epidemic many communities, against government warning that it would cause panic, shut down various public places. Cecilia Lukasik, a polio survivor, recalls, "You didn't do a lot of group things-- didn't go to the park, didn't go to the swimming pools, didn't go to a lot of public places because they really weren't sure how this disease spread ... People were scared, and nobody could give you any information."
Their fears were justified because the lack of a cure meant that if you contracted polio it was often only a matter of time before you died or had your life permanently altered. People wondered whether they or their children would be next to lie sick and dying with polio. They hoped and prayed that a cure or vaccine would be found. When Dr. Salk's vaccine was proven safe and effective, the nation breathed a collective sigh of relief. The polio epidemic that had gripped them with fear and claimed countless lives was going to end.
Dr. Salk: The Epidemic
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