Until the nineteenth century, polio was a common infection that rarely caused serious illness. Most people were exposed to the virus at a young age from polluted drinking water and developed a natural immunity to the disease. However, with improvements to water and sewerage provision in large cities in the United States and Europe, fewer urban residents were exposed to the virus at a young age. Polio then emerged as a virulent epidemic that paralyzed and often killed young adults. The first large-scale polio epidemics hit the U.S. in 1894 and continued into the 1950s. While the virus that causes polio was isolated in 1907, a successful vaccine was not developed, tested, and adopted until the 1950s.
Pollution and Polio, 1945
By 1945, the Cook County Department of Public Health had closed the Des Plaines River to swimming due in part to fears of polio. The Izaack Walton League fought to eradicate sewage pollution in order to control the spread of polio.
Water Diversions and Polio
On September 28, 1943, the Chicago Tribune reported that a local congressman sought an additional water diversion from Lake Michigan to flush the polio virus from area rivers and streams.
Unofficial Rules for the Polio Epidemic, 1952
On September 13, 1952, the Chicago Tribune reported that more than seven hundred people had contracted polio already that year, making it officially at epidemic stage. The Tribune health editor made a series of recommendations for rules during the polio epidemic.
The Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago © 2005 Chicago Historical Society.
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