Polio ain’t just the flu. Neither is COVID-19

artists rendition

Last week I heard a newscaster say that mass distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine is unprecedented. That was followed by the White House Chief of Staff, Mark Meadows proclaiming: “We are not going to control the pandemic.”

That got me scratching my head. Wait a minute. Humans have always tried to control disease. What did we do when Polio was ravaging the country? And what does “controlling the pandemic mean?” Surely we’re not willing to just let-it-rip.

I know some of my readers remember lining up at school to get Polio shots and later sugar cubes soaked with the oral vaccine. I know some readers even remember a President who contracted Polio.

Two whole generation of Americans have no memory of Polio, or the widespread fear, or the national effort to find a vaccine.

We do know how to control a pandemic.

As a result of world-wide efforts, Polio is nearly eradicated. Only two countries continue to have outbreaks: Afghanistan and Pakistan.

I remember when that wasn’t the case. I had classmates who were crippled. I knew an adult who recovered and later developed post-polio syndrome. I remember every kitchen countertop had a March of Dimes collection card.

98% of those infected with Polio had no or mild symptoms. As a nation, we chose to work together to eradicate it. For COVID-19, “we’re not going to control the pandemic.” Why not?

That got me thinking: How is this pandemic and our response different? How are they the same.

A National Effort

1938 an enormous fundraising effort began when entertainer Eddie Cantor suggested on the radio that people send dimes to President Roosevelt at the White House to help fight Polio. Within a few weeks, people had mailed 2,680,000 dimes to the President. Other celebrities and then grass-roots organizers joined in the campaign. Over the years, this “March of Dimes” raised tens of millions of dollars, much of which went to the effort to find a vaccine.

I remember public service ads warning parents to keep their children out of public pools. No one was sure how the Polio spread, but they knew it raged in the summer more than other times of the year. Some people thought mosquitoes or flies were the culprit, so they dosed their kids with DDT.

With COVID-19, we are sanitizing everything in sight. We aren’t sure whether we can get it from surfaces. We see news videos of public works employees fumigating subways and buses and city streets. Hopefully, we won’t be surprised about new dangers created by sanitizers.

Governors and Mayor have daily briefings to remind everyone to do his or her part to stop COVID-19. Many state, with the guidance of CDC, provide mandates or recommendations using specific criteria for opening schools and public places. Everywhere I go, restaurants and stores remind me to: Wear a mask, Watch my distance, Wash my hands.

The Viruses are ancient

Three types of Poliovirus causes Polio. Poliovirus has been around for a long time; possibly since ancient Egypt.

A newly identified Coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) causes COVID-19. Scientists believe the virus is ancient, but has spread from animal to humans in 2019.

The Viruses cause flu-like symptoms

In about 98% of the cases Polio results in a mild illness, with no symptoms or with mild to moderate flu-like symptoms. In people infected with COVID-19, 80% have no symptoms or symptoms so mild they chalk it up to just a headache or fatigue.

The Viruses spreads easily

Both viruses spread through contact between people, by nasal and oral secretions. Polio also spreads by contact with contaminated feces. There’s a good chance COVID-19 does, too.

Because the more you’re around an infected person, the more likely you are to get infected, crowded areas are the best place to get infected. And the longer you’re near an infected person, the more likely you are to get infected. For that reasons, both disease spread quickly within a household. Here’s a quick graphic comparing COVID-19 with other diseases:

If polio was in this graphic, it would show one sick person infecting 11 other people.

Some cases are severe

For Polio, 1%-2% of people who contract it become paralyzed. In severe cases, the throat and chest may be paralyzed. Death may result if the patient does not receive artificial breathing support.

COVID-19 can result in acute respiratory distress, organ damage, and even amputation. It has a death rate of 2.6% in the United States.

Post-Polio Syndrome occurs 15 to 30 years after an infection, whether or not the initial infection resulted in paralysis. Symptoms include decreasing muscular function or acute weakness with pain and fatigue.

Some Covid-19 patients recover, but continue to suffer from what is know as Long Hauler Syndrome.

Today I learned that the brains of severely ill Covid-19 patients aged about 10 years. We don’t know yet what, or if any issues will surface years from now.

The cognitive deficits were “of substantial effect size”, particularly among people who had been hospitalised with COVID-19, the researchers said, with the worst cases showing impacts “equivalent to the average 10-year decline in global performance between the ages of 20 to 70”.

For more information about this go the Reuters.


A safe and effective Polio vaccine took years. In 1954, 1.3 million children participated in a trial for the Salk vaccine. Unfortunately 11 children died from the vaccine and hundreds became paralyzed. It took a year before children stopped getting the vaccine.

It wasn’t until 1960 that Albert Sabin’s Polio vaccine providing protection against Type 1 poliovirus. Soon, vaccines for Types 2 and 3 would be licensed. A 1963 vaccine would combine all three types.

More than 50 vaccines are in human trials for COVID-19. Some have been halted due to adverse effects and even death. Six vaccines are in Phase III, which means they are being tested to see if they can prevent people from getting infected. It’s possible that the first vaccine will have Emergency Use Authorization, something like that first polio vaccine. Some vaccines are already being massed produced at government expense so they can be distributed quickly.

Growing evidence suggests that the antibodies produced by a COVID-19 may be short-lived. That means until we control the pandemic, we may need seasonal innoculation.

What are we missing?

We need to pull together to eradicate COVID-19, the way we did Polio.

We need a unified national front to control the pandemic. We need a national plan.

We need to base our decisions on good science. That means a measured, data-driven process for a COVID-19 vaccine. We don’t want to find out after millions of people are inoculated that the vaccine is not safe, like we did with the early Polio vaccine.

We need to get on top of our COVID-19 fatigue and control the pandemic by Wearing a mask, Washing our hands, and Watching our distance.

I know. It’s hard. It’s sad. It’s sometimes lonely. But, we can do it. We have the will to conqueor anything. Surely, we’re smarter than a virus.