Polio, then and now
One local woman recalls her childhood battle with the virus to mark World Polio Day, Wednesday, Oct. 24
Global Polio Eradication Initiative
A young boy in Nigeria receives the oral polio vaccine.
Polio. People in their 50s and 60s can instantly recall their childhoods and the fear of the polio epidemic. Everyone stood in the long lines to receive the liquid vaccine, often dropped on a sugar cube.
Virginia Fitzner was 11 years old in 1950, before Jonas Salk invented the first vaccine in 1952. In her small farming community in rural Montana, Fitzner knew about polio but it hadn’t affected her community.
“It was feared that you could get it, but it wasn’t real common,” she said this week from her home outside of Cheney.
That summer, when she developed a fever her doctor thought she had spinal meningitis. She was sent home, still sick. Pains started shooting through her back and legs, and she couldn’t sleep.
One day, she remembers lying stretched out on her bed and trying to move her foot.
“I realized I couldn’t lift my left leg up off the bed,” she said. It was paralyzed.
Soon after, she was diagnosed with polio, along with two other children in the Moiese Valley of Montana. She lived a relatively secluded life with her family on a farm, and Fitzner said she still doesn’t know how she contracted the virus.
She was sick all summer; the muscles in her left leg deteriorated, but she survived and began physical therapy that fall. She said she doesn’t remember being scared or feeling sorry for herself.
“It was probably more like an adventure,” she said of her trips to attend physical therapy sessions to rebuild her leg. “I remember thinking it was great getting to ride with the neighbor down to Missoula, because that was quite a trip.”
Fitzner was made fun of a bit for the slight limp she retained and the brace she wore on her leg, but it didn’t bother her too much.
“I always remember my grandmother told me at the time, you’ll only be a cripple if you choose to be a cripple,” she said.
Fitzner doesn’t think of herself as a “polio survivor,” she thinks of herself as lucky. Thousands of people, mostly children, died of polio in America in the 1950s, and she was able to recover and lead a normal life.
For Americans born after the epidemic was stopped, polio is categorized with other awful diseases that were quelled by medicine. Those younger people might wonder why Rotary Clubs turn out to ask for donations, holding signs that read “End Polio Now.” They might think, isn’t that already gone?
In fact, polio is still present in several countries. Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria have never eradicated the virus, and it continues to spread in Chad and the Democratic Republic of Congo, countries that previously eradicated it.
Oct. 24 marked World Polio Day, an event established by Rotary International for those working to eradicate polio to highlight their work and recommit to the goal of stopping the disease. Rotary is part of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative working to vaccinate people and stop the spread of the virus.
The group’s efforts are working, and the number of new polio cases is declining. Since World Polio Day last year, there have been 171 new cases, compared to 467 the year before.
Fitzner sees a danger in young people not bothering to vaccinate their children against polio because they don’t understand the disease.
“Don’t skip the immunization,” she said. “It really is important.”
Becky Thomas can be reached at email@example.com.