Now I am one year old and sitting up. My parents hoped that my next steps will be walking around on those chubby little legs but this was something that could not always be guaranteed in the 1950s.
Early life was full of many dangers, mostly disease and in 1955 one in twenty children would die before they were five years old. It had taken one hundred and fifty years to reduce this statistic from one in three. I cannot begin to imagine living with that sort of fear, I brought up children in the 1990s when the risks were significantly reduced.
In 1955 there was a major medical breakthrough with the introduction of a vaccine to prevent the spread of an illness that caused widespread panic and fear amongst parents.
Polio, or to be strictly correct Poliomyelitis is all but eradicated now, there are still some cases in Africa, but was previously right up there along with smallpox, cholera and tuberculosis with the World’s most deadly contagions.
Polio is a highly infectious and unpleasant disease that affects the nervous system, often resulting in paralysis or death. It is transmitted through contaminated food, drinking water and dirty swimming pool water. Even though the disease had been around for much of human history, major polio epidemics were unknown before the twentieth century and only began to regularly occur in Europe in the early nineteenth century and soon after became widespread in the United States as cities got bigger and a lack of hygiene and poor 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 the USA there was a devastating epidemic in 1952 and after the nuclear bomb it became the thing that most Americans feared most. In the UK there were about four thousand recorded cases every year. There was no known cure for the disease and it became an imperative to discover a vaccine so when this came along this was really good news and the World breathed a collective sigh of relief.
The man responsible was a medical researcher and virologist called Jonas Salk. Salk was subsequently revered as though he were a Saint not least because with no interest in personal profit there was no registered patent for the vaccine. Rather belatedly, on May 6th 1985, President Ronald Reagan proclaimed that day to be ‘Jonas Salk Day’.
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 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 the muscles becoming weak, floppy and poorly controlled, and finally completely paralysed. Progression to maximum paralysis is as quick as two to four days.
Not being a qualified doctor 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 if you caught it at best you would spend the rest of your life in leg irons or at worst in an iron lung (or to give it its proper name a negative pressure ventilator).
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. Later it was administered orally with a few drops on a sugar cube but I suspect health and obesity fanatics would frown upon that now. I’ll deal with that later. Thankfully, polio is now practically unheard of in those countries that use the vaccine.
Polio wasn’t the only killer of course and there were also vaccines and injections for other unpleasant nasties like smallpox, typhoid and tuberculosis. I can still remember the mere mention of suspected smallpox leading to mild panic by my mother. And then there were the common children’s diseases like measles, mumps, rubella and chicken pox which could also be killers themselves but generally just made you feel rather poorly for a day or two.
To protect against them there were regular trips to the doctor’s surgery for inoculations against them all and there were so many pricks in your arm that by the time you were six years old your arm began to look a bit like a needle worker’s pin cushion.
Today in the UK infant deaths before the age of five are over one in two hundred.
Just out of interest, as well as being ‘Jonas Salk Day’, May 6th is now also celebrated as ‘International No Diet Day’ (an annual celebration of body acceptance and body shape diversity and for raising awareness of the potential dangers of dieting).
I mention this here because with the nightmare of polio finally under control another health problem was started in 1955 because a man called Ray Kroc came along and unwittingly unleashed a new monster and the beginning of the western world obesity problem when he opened the ninth McDonalds franchise restaurant, in Des Plaines, Illinois, which eventually led to the McDonalds Corporation and a world domination that Ersnt Blofeld could only have dreamed about.
More about this next time…
I have still got the chubby legs…