Updates from Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital and Hospital Foundation | TheUnion.com
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Updates from Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital and Hospital Foundation

Older adults likely remember the most feared epidemic disease in the 1950s. Polio paralyzed thousands of children and adults. While there are differences, there are also many comparisons that can be made between COVID-19 and polio.

Both epidemics are caused by viruses albeit from different origins. COVID-19 is a respiratory virus while polio is an intestinal virus. COVID-19 damages the lungs. Polio migrates into the spinal cord and destroys motor nerves resulting in paralysis.

Polio is a debilitating and life-threatening disease that spreads person to person and is more prevalent in areas with poor sanitation. Polio dates back centuries although major epidemics appeared in Europe in the 1900s. At its peak in the 1940s and 1950s, polio paralyzed or killed over a half million people worldwide every year.



COVID-19 has been found in humans and animals. Polio is exclusively a human disease. The victims of the two viruses are dissimilar. Polio primarily affected children although adults like Franklin Roosevelt contracted it. Polio’s original name was infantile paralysis. Polio could be fatal if it affected breathing muscles although this was a very small percentage. Generally it left its victims paralyzed. While COVID-19 can affect all ages, it is more serious in older adults or those with chronic health conditions.

In both diseases many people are asymptomatic meaning the infected individual doesn’t exhibit symptoms, but is capable of spreading the disease. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates 25% of COVID-19 patients won’t show symptoms, while over 90 percent of polio cases were asymptomatic. A commonality between the two epidemics is asymptomatic individuals were the major source of new infections.




Another difference between the two pandemics is polio tended to hit in a region where COVID-19 hit all 50 states at nearly the same time. Additionally, because polio’s greater impact was on children, the wage earners were generally spared and able to work.

Just as hospitals are struggling today to care for COVID-19 patients, in the hardest hit polio years, hospitals were easily overwhelmed. Isolation hospitals were established and parents were prohibited from visiting their sick children. The widely feared “iron lungs” were the first effective ventilators and saved many lives, but doctors had to make difficult decisions on how to put on the limited equipment they had available to them.

Rotary, an international community of service clubs, united to focus on the eradication of polio over 35 years ago. Internationally, clubs have donated over $2.1 billion and have vaccinated nearly three billion children in 122 countries from this paralyzing disease. Today, polio remains endemic in only Afghanistan and Pakistan. Locally, all five clubs continue to play a significant role in supporting Rotary’s initiative to eradicate polio from these final two countries.

Two very different epidemics in two different eras. While we wish we could have quick fix answers, just as medical research ended devastating decades of polio, our scientists and medical profession are developing vaccines and effective treatments giving hope to a COVID-19 free future.


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