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1930s & Earlier / Polio Ward Photo
This photo from the 1930s shows a hospital's polio ward where children were placed in iron lungs to assist their breathing. Polio epidemics were a frequent occurrence in the first half of the 20th century in industrialized countries. They were actually a strange bi-product of affluence. By the beginning of the 20th century, a significant amount of babies were being born in the antiseptic conditions of hospitals rather than at home. This meant that many infants were not exposed to the polio virus and thus did not build up an immunity to it. Therefore when they were exposed to it later in life, they were vulnerable. Although the disease mostly afflicted children, adults were not necessarily immune. (President Franklin Roosevelt was crippled by polio at age 39.) The polio virus moved from one person to the next via human bodily fluids. Children who sneezed and coughed were the main culprits. The first symptoms varied. Sometime people had runny noses, sore throats, or aches. However, the minor discomforts could quickly change to partial paralysis if it struck one's central nervous system. Whenever a major polio outbreak hit, many public facilities such as swimming pools and parks would shut down. The last major outbreak occurred in 1952. By the mid-1950s the Salk and Saban vaccines had done much to eradicate the virus from North America.