Note: This article continues the Pandemic series which began with Pandemic Part 1: A Primer on the Biology of the SARS-CoV-2 Virus and the Terminology that You are Hearing and Pandemic Part 2: Pandemics of the Past.
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It’s spring, 1954. Medicine has advanced considerably over the past two decades, but one health issue has remained a constant source of anxiety and fear for many generations. It’s the issue of infectious disease, and there is one infectious disease that particularly evokes feelings of horror among parents, arguably to the level that another disease, COVID-19, will probably evoke two thirds of a century later. Unlike the future COVID-19, the devastating infectious disease of the 1950s has not been declared a pandemic, a disease that has spread on a world scale, but it does strike in waves of epidemics, typically that peak during the summer months. Furthermore, similar to COVID-19, the devastating disease of the 1950s is caused by a virus that carries genetic information in a kind of molecule called RNA. The immune system can often eliminate such viruses from the body, but, in the cases of many known RNA viruses, only after a great deal of damage has been done. In the case of the 1950s epidemic, the main damage occurs in motor neurons, nerve cells that carry electrical signals in the direction from the central nervous system outward to different organs in the body, such as muscles. Thus, in addition to flu-like symptoms, such as fever, nausea and vomiting, headache, and aches and pains throughout the body, the 1950s disease can be fatal, due to paralysis of the breathing muscles. Much more often, it leaves its victims with varying degrees of long-term disability, as it did to a recent US President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The epidemic disease goes by a few names, infantile paralysis and poliomyelitis being the most common. Increasingly, it is simply called polio, and parents of 1954 are so eager to see it wiped from the face of the Earth that they are lining up to do something that would be hard to pull off 66 years later, by which time many people in developed countries will take for granted and is one of the most effective developments in the history of medicine: vaccination.
But still living in the age of polio, and for that matter, still in the age of measles, mumps, and a range of other childhood diseases that will be rendered fully preventable within the next 20 years, the people of 1954 are longing for a new vaccine. Though far more religious, on average, than their grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the 2020s, parents of 1954 would be puzzled were you to mention the fact that 21st century schoolchildren can be exempted from vaccination requirements on the basis of their parents’ religious objections. What sort of people would reject simple preventive measures a disease that paralyzes and kills children year after year? Thus, hearing that a scientist, Jonas Salk, has developed a vaccine against polio and that test subjects are needed, hundreds of thousands of families are enrolling their children as test subjects in a vaccine trial beginning in April, 1954.
Returning to 2020, at this point in the COVID-19 pandemic, a handful of companies have announced success in producing promising vaccines against SARS-Cov-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, but the testing and mass production will take many months at minimum.
In the meantime –and also after COVID-19 is finally brought under control– we can all do a lot of good for ourselves, our families, and all humanity, by seeing to it that we are up to date with our immunizations and boosters for the many diseases that can be prevented, so that we don’t burden the health care system with illness that could have been prevented. Measles, pertussis, tetanus, and pneumococcus can all put people in the intensive care unit (ICU). So can the flu, and while flu vaccines are not 100 percent effective, they do prevent many cases, plus they reduce the severity in cases when you do develop the flu. Every year, thousands of people in the US alone are hospitalized with the flu, typically because they didn’t receive a flu shot. And so, one important thing you can do to help ease the burden on society of COVID-19 is to take reasonable preventive measures against the various other infectious diseases for you and for your children.