Pandemic Then vs. Today

Pandemic Then vs. Today

By: Carolyn O. Robinson, MD, FAAP

Before 2020, most adults had heard the term “pandemic”, but most of us probably never thought we would go through what we have experienced the last year.

In the recent past in the United States, there was the influenza pandemic of 1918, the polio epidemic in 1948-1952, and the HIV/AIDS pandemic from 1981 to present, with smaller outbreaks of smallpox and various influenza subtypes.

It is interesting to compare our current situation with the polio outbreaks of the 1940’s and 1950’s. At its peak, polio paralyzed or killed over half a million people worldwide every year. People responded in ways similar to what we have seen this past year – meetings were cancelled, schools closed, and public gatherings were non-existent. Placards were placed in the windows of residences where patients were quarantined due to polio, which are similar to our current contact tracing and subsequent quarantining. Violating the order or removing the placard was punishable by a fine.

People were afraid. The 1952 polio epidemic was the worst in our nation’s history. The public became aware that the only solution would be a vaccine.

At the time, vaccine development was still a relatively newer science. Two vaccines were eventually created; the Salk vaccine, which was an inactivated polio vaccine, and an oral live, attenuated vaccine by Sabin. Parents, desperate to protect their children, lined up at vaccine distribution sites. Mass immunization results in the last cases of paralytic poliomyelitis in the United States in 1979. Sadly, about seven countries worldwide still suffer from cases of polio where vaccines are not readily available.

We now have two COVID-19 vaccines in use in the United States. Both result in significant protection from the coronavirus with close to 95% effectiveness after two injections.

A 2007 World Health Organization (WHO) report noted that new infectious diseases are emerging at the “historically unprecedented rate of one per year”. We are likely to experience more new diseases in the future.

We can be grateful for this new mRNA technology has produced a solution to our situation, but we have much to learn about better preparation and response for our future.

As George Santaxana said, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Carolyn O. Robinson, MD, FAAP