Each generation has its threats

Published 8:58 pm Tuesday, March 31, 2020

short rows headerEach generation of children must face the threats of their time.


When my generation was in elementary school, two things quite probably frightened us the most — the mushroom cloud and the iron lung.

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The 1950s were the opening years of the Cold War. The Soviet Union was in the early stages of an arms race with the United States to see who could build the most powerful and most numerous nuclear bombs. The strategy of the two superpowers became known as Mutually Assured Destruction — MAD — and it most assuredly was. It was, quite simply, the threat that if a major nuclear-armed power started war with another, the response would assure the destruction of the world as we knew it. It’s a threat that remains today, though we have reduced the number of bombs and thus number of times the world could be destroyed with what remains.

As children, we were made painfully aware of the nuclear threat. Civil Defense signs and arrows pointed the way to the basement of the school, where we might be entombed with our classmates and teachers. Short of getting there, we could crawl under our desks with the hope that a plywood desktop might provide some protection.

While the nuclear threat was real and always gnawing at us, either consciously or subconsciously, the real that often seemed most real to us was polio. Known as infantile paralysis because it all-too-frequently targeted the very young, polio was, like coronavirus, a virus for which, at that time, there was no cure. It was not are rapacious as COVID-19, but it killed or maimed a huge percentage of those it struck.

Show me a photo of a little girl with leg braces and crutches, and I immediately think of polio, which crippled thousands upon thousands of children. Show me a photo of a child in an iron lung, though, and it recalls the fear we all felt during that period.

The iron lung represented a huge medical advance. A person who could not breath on his or her own could be assisted, and frequently kept alive, inside the lung, which was a steel container that repeatedly raised and lowered air pressure around the patient, forcing the lungs to inhale and exhale.

Many people were able to recover from polio, to whatever extent they would, while encased in an iron lung. Others spent the rest of their lives inside the contraptions.

Artificial respirators, which are in such short supply today as hospitals try to gear up for COVID-19, replaced the iron lung beginning in the 1950s.

Polio, known to have existed for thousands of years, periodically raged throughout much of the world and found America particularly hospitable. It came in waves, generally during late summer and, in 1952, infected nearly 60,000 American children. Of those, 3,000 died.

America’s children were enlisted in the battle to defeat polio through the March of Dimes. We each received cards during the annual fund raising effort by that non-profit and were encouraged to fill it with the dimes that might otherwise buy a candy bar or other non-essential. We felt we were helping those children in leg braces, and in a very real sense, we were.

And then came Drs. Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin. Salk developed an injectable vaccine that was introduced in 1955, and Sabine’s oral vaccine was available for mass distribution by 1961.

I can’t recall taking the Salk shot, but I vividly remember the Sunday that the Isle of Wight Health Department designated for mass distribution of the Sabine vaccine. County residents went to the Community Hall (now Town Hall) in Smithfield in early afternoon one Sunday, and I believe there was a second location in Windsor. We lined up along the sidewalk and filed through the building, where nurses gave us a sugar cube laced with a drop of the vaccine.

Within a couple of years, polio cases had dramatically declined, and soon vanished from the summer landscape.

COVID-19 could become far worse than polio. It certainly has that potential. Nevertheless, we’ll see it through. There will be a vaccine, which will sharply reduce the threat, and we’ll move on, at least until the next killer emerges.