Polio in Iowa

Polio was no stranger to Iowa. As early as 1910, records show 186 cases that year. After public health inspectors investigated 59 cases in Cerro Gordo County, the State Board of Health required that all cases be reported. And it recommended quarantine and sanitary measures be taken.

Iowa Children Help

Most often affecting children, the the polio virus attacks the nervous system and impairs muscle. Sometimes it causes temporary paralysis. Paralysis is the inability for a person to move thier body or parts of their body. One percent of people with polio will suffer severe and lasting effects.

Polio reoccurred every few years in Iowa. But in 1940 the number of cases skyrocketed to 927. The period 1948-1950 averaged 1,300 cases yearly. The disease peaked at more than 3,500 in 1952. A quarter of them were in Sioux City. A gamma globulin vaccine was tested on 16,500 children in Sioux City. It was part of a national trial. But the vaccine gave only short-term protection. Iron lungs, large machines that enable a person to breathe, were flown to Sioux City to assist those whose breathing muscles were impaired. Iron lungs compressed and expanded the chest, pushing air out and pulling it in.

With no known cure and no way to prevent it, polio terrified most Americans. Hope finally replaced fear when the new Salk vaccine trial was tested successfully on 420,000 children in 1954. In Woodbury, Linn and Scott counties in Iowa, 13,000 children were part of the trial. The next year the Salk vaccine was available to the public. The Sabin vaccine replaced it in 1962. Both of these vaccines were effective in protecting against polio

Polio is Wiped Out

Organizations, including the March of Dimes and Iowa's labor unions, assisted with public information efforts and mass inoculations. In Dubuque over 7,000 people were inoculated within a 15-hour period in 1962.

The number of cases in Iowa dropped from 1,445 in 1954 to 580 in 1956. In 1957 they dropped to only 78. In 1979, however, an outbreak occurred in four states, including Iowa.

Polio has been conquered in the United States. But post-polio syndrome began to appear among former polio patients in the 1980s. Post-polio syndrome is when the muscles that were once affected by polio begin to weaken again. For the last twenty years, international efforts have focused on wiping out polio throughout the world.

Adapted from original article by Ginalie Swaim, Iowa Heritage Illustrated 86, No. 2 (Summer 2005). Iowa City: State Historical Society of Iowa.
© State Historical Society of Iowa



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