Are vaccines needed? Just ask early Kewanee polio victims

My Grandma Edna Karau’s half-sister, Evelyn Norquist, was born Dec. 8, 1914, in Kewanee. Twenty-one months later, Evelyn experienced a tragedy which afflicted many and continued to do so for another half-century until a vaccine was discovered: She was struck with polio.


In the early 20th century, polio was one of the most feared diseases in industrialized countries. By 1916 it had reached pandemic proportions in the Northeast United States, and it was paralyzing hundreds of thousands of children everywhere every year. Kewanee was not immune from the virus.

In 1916, the Norquist family was living on Madison Avenue near the water plant when it was exposed to infantile paralysis, a term then used to describe poliomyelitis, or polio.

Young Evelyn contracted polio. As was typical at the time, the city health officials established a quarantine of the residence, on Sept. 20. The quarantine remained in place for a month, until Oct. 20. The polio affected her left leg. Family members massaged the leg and wrapped it with warm, moist cloths. Fortunately, no other family members contracted the disease.

For a time, Evelyn wore a metal brace. Eventually, she recovered but essentially had to learn to walk all over again. Evelyn continued to wear the leg brace for many years and her leg continued to require regular massage. Years later, the muscle structure of the left leg was still slightly less developed than that of her unaffected right leg. But Evelyn had been fortunate, and polio outbreaks slowed.

However, by the late 1940s, polio occurrences began increasing again in frequency and size, immobilizing an average of more than 35,000 people yearly. Parents were anxious whether to let their children go outside, especially in the summer when the virus seemed to peak. Some places instituted restrictions on travel and commerce between affected cities. (For a fuller account of the fear with which America lived in the 1904s, read NEMESIS by Philip Roth.)

Growing up in Kewanee in the 1950s, we were faced with two truly existential threats – nuclear war with Soviet Union and polio.

As for the atomic bomb, we believed that crawling under our school desks would offer some protection should one be dropped on or near Kewanee.

For polio, however, there was nothing we could do to stop this silent monster. There was no medicine to treat the disease and no vaccine to produce immunity. Polio could seemingly strike anyone, for no apparent reason. We lived in fear of a lifetime encased within an iron lung, a frightful symbol as powerful as a mushroom cloud.An iron lung was a mechanical respirator which enclosed most of a person's body to stimulate breathing when muscle control was lost due to, among other things, paralysis of the lungs from polio. Kewanee had acquired its own iron lung in the late 1930s.

Many of us in the 1950s had nightmares of the claustrophobia we could experience if we should somehow be struck with this dreaded disease which caused paralysis.

As we were growing up, we learned that no one was safe. Even a president of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, could not avoid the reaches of polio.

And then, science answered the bell. A polio vaccine was introduced in 1955 − trivalent inactivated poliovirus vaccine. That was followed by an improved vaccine in 1963 - trivalent oral poliovirus vaccine.

The dedicated health care professionals and parents who listened to them about vaccinating their children led to the number of polio cases falling rapidly, to less than 100 in the 1960s and fewer than 10 in the 1970s. According to the Center for Disease Control, wild poliovirus has been eliminated in this country for more than 30 years, and since 1979, no cases of polio caused by wild poliovirus have originated in the U.S.

In his May 6, 1985, proclamation establishing Dr. Jonas E. Salk Day, President Ronald Reagan said: “One of the greatest challenges to mankind always has been eradicating the presence of debilitating disease. Until just thirty years ago poliomyelitis occurred in the United States and throughout the world in epidemic proportions, striking tens of thousands and killing thousands in our own country each year.

“Dr. Jonas E. Salk changed all that. This year we observe the 30th anniversary of the licensing and manufacturing of the vaccine discovered by this great American. Even before another successful vaccine was discovered, Dr. Salk's discovery had reduced polio and its effects by 97 percent. Today, polio is not a familiar disease to younger Americans, and many have difficulty appreciating the magnitude of the disorder that the Salk vaccine virtually wiped from the face of the earth.”

Despite the heroic work done to eradicate the disease, the wild virus has been brought into the country by travelers with polio. Prior to this year, the last time this happened was in 1993. Now it has happened again this year, meaning this dreaded disease could be with us again, striking without warning those who are unvaccinated.

According to a study published in AIMS PUBLIC HEALTH, nearly 200 million cases of polio, measles, mumps, rubella, varicella, adenovirus, rabies and hepatitis A - and approximately 450,000 deaths from these diseases − were prevented in the U.S. alone between 1963 and 2015 by vaccination. Different studies show different results. But all reputable studies show that vaccines work against these scourges, and they work well.

I encourage you to be sure you and yours have their vaccines up-to-date. If you have any doubts about vaccines’ efficacy, please talk to your doctor or a qualified expert. Your fellow patriotic Americans are counting on you to act as did those Americans who lived before us and who worked so hard to stamp out these cursed maladies.

This article originally appeared on Star Courier: Are vaccines needed? Just ask early Kewanee polio victims