On 27th February 1950 the first child in the World was inoculated with an important new vaccine and this represented a major a major medical breakthrough to prevent the spread of an illness that caused widespread panic and hysteria amongst parents. Polio!
Polio is a highly infectious disease that affects the nervous system, sometimes resulting in paralysis. It is transmitted through contaminated food, drinking water and swimming pool water. Polio had existed for thousands of years but even though the disease had caused paralysis and death for much of human history major polio epidemics were practically unknown before the nineteenth century when they began to occur more regularly and soon became widespread in the United States as cities got bigger and a lack of hygiene and sanitation created serious health hazards. By 1910, much of the World experienced a dramatic increase in polio cases and frequent epidemics became regular events, primarily in these big cities during the summer months. In medical circles it became an imperative to discover a vaccine so when this came along this was really good news.
There were a number of forms of polio with varying degrees of seriousness but the one that you really didn’t want to catch was spinal polio which was a viral invasion of the motor neurons in the spinal column which, rather importantly, are responsible for movement of the muscles, including those of the body and the major limbs. When spinal neurons die, degeneration swiftly takes place, leading to weakness of muscles, and with the destruction of nerve cells, they no longer receive signals from the brain or spinal cord and without nerve stimulation become weak, floppy and poorly controlled, and finally completely without use and paralysed. This was a frightening disease and progression to maximum paralysis could be as quick as just two to four days.
I have massively simplified the medical details here of course but one thing that was absolutely certain was that polio was a very nasty business indeed and parents were understandably worried sick about it because there was no known cure and if you caught it at best you would spend the rest of your life in leg irons or at worst in an iron lung. The vaccine was administered by an especially nasty injection which if you were unlucky left an ugly crater in the top of the arm, but that was a small price to pay for peace of mind. Thankfully, polio is now practically unheard of in the West and in those countries that use the vaccine.
Polio wasn’t the only killer of course and there were also vaccines and injections for other nasties like smallpox, typhoid and tuberculosis. And then there were the common children’s diseases like measles, mumps, rubella and chicken pox which didn’t kill you outright but made you feel rather poorly for a day or two. To protect against them there were regular trips to the doctor’s surgery for injections against them all and there were so many pricks in your arm that you began to look a bit like a pin cushion. By the age of six or seven children of my age had had so many needles inserted that they must have had more pricks than a Soho prostitute!