Polio survivor details similarities between outbreaks
John Nanni was 10 months old when he was diagnosed with polio.
In September 1953, he was paralyzed from the neck down. His mother gave him physical therapy, so his muscles wouldn’t atrophy. Six months later a vaccine was introduced to the public for testing, including his community in Binghamton, New York.
Although it was too late for Nanni to get the vaccine, his mother’s efforts helped him walk again.
Growing up, he was physically weaker and slower than the rest of the kids his age due to the effects of polio. Although he struggled, he knows he is one of the lucky ones.
“I’ve been very blessed. If I was born in a developing country, I wouldn’t be here today,” Nanni said.
Over the years, he has experienced post-polio syndrome — a condition that causes muscle weakness, fatigue and joint pain in polio survivors — but still lives a full life.
Now he is 67 years old and president of the Middletown-Odessa-Townsend Rotary Club and Rotary District 7630 PolioPlus committee chair for Delaware and Eastern Shore Maryland. In these roles, he has spent part of his adulthood learning about the outbreak and helping eradicate polio around the world.
Living through another epidemic, he sees many similarities between the COVID-19 and polio outbreaks.
Symptomatic or not
Like COVID-19, people could be contagious with poliomyelitis before symptoms appeared. Nanni said researchers didn’t know why some people who caught the virus had mild symptoms and others had extreme outcomes, including paralysis or death.
“It’s why polio was so hard to stop,” he said. “Back then, they knew less about polio than what they know now about the coronavirus.”
This disabling, life-threatening disease is caused by the poliovirus. It spreads from person to person, entering the body through the mouth by the sneeze or cough of an infected person or by contact with the feces.
Polio — which affects the spinal cord causing paralysis — was once one of the most feared diseases in the U.S.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, polio outbreaks in the U.S. increased in frequency and size in the late 1940s and continued throughout the early 1950s. Polio outbreaks caused more than 15,000 cases of paralysis each year until a vaccine was introduced in 1955.
About 72 out of every 100 people who get the virus will not have any visible symptoms, according to the CDC, and about one out of four people with it will have flu-like symptoms.
Nanni said they didn’t know how it spread during the outbreak. For every case diagnosed, they now know there were as many 200 people who had polio but didn’t have symptoms, he said.
“I was only 10 months old [when I got polio]. I wasn’t out there playing with kids. My older brother was … He hasn’t had any post-polio syndrome, but I would like for him to have the test so I can blame him,” Nanni said while laughing.
Researchers have not been able to confirm how many people in the U.S. could be carriers of the coronavirus, but one doctor told NPR April 24 it could be as high as 25% of the population.
COVID-19 has hit all age groups but has hit elderly and those with preexisting conditions the hardest. It was possible for all age groups to get polio, but children were infected more often.
“To this day, they still don’t know why children were susceptible to polio and adults were not, I suspect it was because they put more things in their mouth,” Nanni said.
To limit the spread of the coronavirus, hospitals and nursing homes are not allowing unnecessary visits from family members, but this is not unique to COVID-19.
“I think it’s very similar with polio survivors who are telling their stories about how they felt abandoned when they were in the hospital polio wards,” Nanni said. “They went weeks without seeing their parents. When they did, it was from a far distance from behind a glass window.”
Shut downs, government involvement
COVID-19 has shut down schools, sports, businesses, playgrounds and activities. People experienced similar closures during the polio outbreak.
According to the History Channel, the prevalence of polio in late spring and summer popularized the “fly theory” because most middle-class Americans associated disease with flies, dirt and poverty. The seasonal surge of the disease in summer and apparent dormancy in winter matched the rise and fall of the mosquito population.
Nanni said public pools, Little League fields and movie theaters were closed, most towns seemed empty and parents stopped taking their children to the grocery store.
During the current pandemic, protestors have stormed state capitol buildings around the country demanding governors to reopen their economies. This did not happen during the polio epidemic, Nanni said.
“There weren’t protests. There was a lot of fear,” he said. “When they had to quarantine, they did quarantine.”
Nanni attributes this to limited federal and state government involvement in deciding what should be open and if people should be quarantined. He said local communities would decide what should shut down depending on whether their area had a diagnosed case and if they had access to the vaccine.
“It was more local government than federal shutting things down,” Nanni said. “It was more reactive than preventative.”
Reopening the country
One of the most common questions now is when the country will reopen. Nanni said the localities did not start to reopen during the polio outbreak until there was a vaccine.
Researchers and health officials are projecting another COVID-19 outbreak in the fall.
Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates — whose foundation works with Rotary — has spoken out about the need for a vaccine.
“Realistically, if we’re going to return to normal, we need to develop a safe, effective vaccine. We need to make billions of doses, we need to get them out to every part of the world, and we need all of this to happen as quickly as possible,” he said in an April 30 blog post.
The Trump administration announced “Operation Warp Speed” to accelerate vaccine development with the hope of having 300 million doses available by January.
Nanni didn’t say if he thinks a vaccine is necessary to go back to normal, but he said he is concerned with the country opening up too soon, given the lack of social distancing he still sees happening.
“You see these people on beaches and those protestors who are going around to these state capitol buildings and they are not wearing masks and they are all bunched together,” he said. “If you really do any research at all, scientifically, one person can affect so many people.”
Rotary fighting COVID-19
Nanni chairs the regional Rotary committee that raises money for the eradication of preventable diseases, such as polio, measles and mumps. The committee and his club have turned their attention to help fight the coronavirus.
He said they took part in a Rotary fundraiser to buy N95 and surgical masks that were distributed to local medical facilities. So far, they have raised more than $30,000, which bought 16,000 masks. Leftover money will be used to buy personal protective equipment.
Nanni is also helping with a local Meals on Wheels program — led by a Middletown-Odessa-Townsend Rotary Club member — has moved to no-contact delivery for meal drop offs.
“We have a few people who are giving me looks [during delivery],” he said. “I am in my wheelchair delivering and people say, ‘No, I should be delivering to you.’”