How Remembering the Polio Epidemic Can Help Us Fight COVID

How Remembering the Polio Epidemic Can Help Us Fight COVID by @MarcStrausBooks #polio #COVID #pandemic

My forthcoming memoir, One Legged-Mongoose: Secrets, Legacies and Coming of Age in 1950s New York, covers the years when I was 10 to 12 years old, where I recall the height of the polio epidemic and the frightening experience of seeing an ambulance pull up to a neighbor’s house and a young girl is taken out in an iron lung. 

There was no treatment for polio. Thousands died, and even more were paralyzed or had lifelong weakness and atrophy of limbs.

  • How was polio transmitted?
  • How contagious was it?
  • What if anything could be done to lower the risk?

All those issues front and center at the time — and mirror the current Covid pandemic crisis.

Getting Polio

One summer day in the early ’50s, I was unable to stand up. After a series of doctor visits, it was determined that I likely had polio. Unlike Covid, there was no definitive test then. Dr. Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine studies were nearing completion, but there were holdups, and it wasn’t finished in time for me.

As the Covid crisis has unfolded, I see many parallels to my time living through the polio epidemic. But there are some stark differences as well. The Salk vaccine incorporated a killed virus, which brought serious risks. The first trial came a year after I was stricken, and a defective vaccine paralyzed 200 children. It took two more years before a successful vaccine was available, and it required four injections. 

It was many years later before we understood that two-thirds of those infected were carriers; their polio went undiagnosed as they had no symptoms. This time around, we knew almost immediately that most people infected with Covid have few if any symptoms.

So much has changed. Successful Covid vaccine production took one year. The two lead companies employed a technology not imaginable 70 years ago: mRNA. In fact, it was only around the time of my illness that Watson and Crick sequenced DNA. It took three years to sequence a small segment of DNA.

Now the entire virus can be sequenced in hours. We can quickly determine if there are new variants and which people are carriers. 

Before the first two Covid vaccines were released in the U.S., more than 30,000 people had received it as part of careful trials, almost without significant morbidity.

To Vaccinate or Not?

The initial benefits of the Covid vaccines have been startling positive, with more than 90% protection from infection. After tens of millions of vaccinations here there have been no reported deaths. And yet tens of millions in the U.S. alone are refusing vaccination. On what basis? When the polio vaccine became available there was little resistance despite severe consequences in many.

What’s changed is there is now an ingrained perception in some communities that the government is withholding information. This is not without basis: It was decades before the public was aware of the tragic experimentation conducted on African Americans.

Today, media reaches almost everyone instantaneously, and it is almost impossible to parse out misinformation. The perception of lying hasn’t been helped by the captious debate about whether and where to mask. What distances should we keep? Which businesses should remain open and closed? As we learned more about the virus, guidelines changed, causing many people to feel the advice they were getting was arbitrary and inconsistent. 

Yet when it comes to information on vaccines, we now have data from hundreds of millions of people who have received it around the world. And the overwhelming evidence is that, with few exceptions, everyone should take the vaccine. It is incredibly safe.

On the other hand, contracting Covid is very dangerous, with millions of deaths and many more people who may have long-term health concerns as a result of their infection.

Eradicating Polio

Eventually, there was an international effort to eradicate polio, which has been largely successful. The same could happen with Covid, but what makes it difficult if not impossible to eliminate it is the large numbers of people who will go unvaccinated. Herd immunity – a term we’ve all heard — is a guesstimate.

Even reaching 70% to 80% of people vaccinated won’t protect 100% of people moving forward. And the longer Covid lingers, the more it will mutate. We already know this and have seen more aggressive mutations.

As an oncologist, I learned that when you continue using a cancer drug, sooner or later, residual cancer cells will mutate — they figure out how to bypass the drug. It’s an incredible concept. The cancer cells fight to survive. 

This is true of the Covid virus as well. It continually mutates, and some variants will be more successful at overcoming the vaccine.

We don’t know as yet when boosters or an entirely new vaccine will be needed. Those are likely to occur. What we can say is the longer there is infection out there, the more mutations will happen, and the possibility of eradicating the disease will become impossible.

I was an 11-year-old in bed without the use of my legs. I could only wait. I didn’t know if I would ever get up and walk again. 

I did and I was lucky. 

I hope we don’t have a world where Covid cycles around endlessly and millions die and economies suffer. And then it happens again and again.

We beat polio — we can beat this. But it requires full global involvement.


Marc Straus is an oncologist and former Chairman of Oncology and Professor of Medicine. He’s also an art collector, gallery owner, author, and poet. He has authored some 100 scientific papers and edited three textbooks on lung cancer in addition to three collections of poetry.

The MARC STRAUS gallery represents 24 artists from 16 different countries. Originally focused on emerging artists not previously exhibited in New York, it is now mixed with a few mid-career and late-career artists from the U.S., Asia and Europe. See for more info.

His newest book, One-Legged Mongoose: Secrets, Legacies and Coming of Age in 1950s New York, will be released this September. Connect with Marc on TwitterFacebook, or Instagram. Sign up for his newsletter here 

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  1. Lydia on June 28, 2021 at 8:54 am

    Thank you for sharing your memories of the Polio pandemic.

    I hope we can get the Covid-19 pandemic under control soon.

  2. […] a young boy in the ’50s, I was out on my own all day, often biking several towns away. One trip almost weekly was to the Hempstead Library, where the […]

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