Editor’s note: This is the first article in a two-part report about Mark Sternhagen and World Polio Day.
BROOKINGS – Mark Sternhagen doesn’t remember the polio epidemic that changed his life forever, but he sees many parallels between those long-ago health crises and the one we’re living through now – with one difference.
“I look at it this way, you know, wearing a mask may be a minor inconvenience, but it’s not like we’re telling you (that) you have to spend the rest of your life in a wheelchair,” he said.
Now retired from South Dakota State University, Sternhagen is publicity chair for the Brookings Committee for People who Have Disabilities and is active in the rights of the disabled, but there’s another cause close to his heart – vaccines – and he has some blunt advice.
“Vaccinate your children,” he said.
He missed a chance to be vaccinated against polio and contracted the disease as a toddler, making a wheelchair a necessity for him.
Sternhagen recalled the lengths that some parents took to protect their children back then and said we should think like they did.
“Maybe one of the things (we should get) out of that is that we should be concerned about others … like we did with polio, and worry about others that are getting the disease,” Sternhagen said. “The right thing to do (is) to take care of each other.”
October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, and Sternhagen spoke at the Brookings City Council meeting Oct. 13 when the mayor made the proclamation, calling attention to the fact that Oct. 24 is World Polio Day.
“That means a lot to me,” he said.
Sternhagen was born in February 1956. By then, poliomyelitis had been terrorizing parents for several years.
It mainly struck children, but also some adults. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for instance, was 39 when he contracted polio in 1921.
Polio has been around since ancient times – Sternhagen said Greek literature mentions it as early as 500 B.C. – but in modern times, it seemed to hit in waves.
In 1948, South Dakota had the highest instance per capita of polio cases in the country, according to the Argus Leader in a 2016 article. By the end of the year, 67 people had died from polio in Sioux Falls. Some that survived lived in iron lungs or were paralyzed to various degrees for the rest of their lives.
There were two kinds of polio: paralytic and non-paralytic, according to a 2017 Argus article. Amazingly, up to 95% of the people with non-paralytic polio had no symptoms at all. But no one had any idea which they might contract or how bad it would be.
Parents lived in near constant fear their children would get it.
July, August and September were considered top polio season, Sternhagen said.
“It really likes summer; hot, humid stuff. Fact is back in the day, when you had a string of hot, humid days during the summer, … the newspapers, radio … would announce that we were in ‘polio weather,’” Sternhagen said.
“Imagine, when there was polio weather; it’s 95 degrees with very high humidity and hardly any wind,” Sternhagen said. Places like movie theaters and swimming pools were shut down, he said.
“Swimming pools were a breeding ground for it. It was part of the reason we have all that chlorine in the water now,” Sternhagen said.
School would be called off, according to the Argus.
“Parents would lock their kids in the house, way beyond where we were during the shelter at home thing. I mean, (it was) ‘You’re not going outside for nothing, kid,’” he said. “They would actually block, close all the windows, block up all the airways ’cause they didn’t really know how it got in.
“Imagine stuffed in the house and it’s 95 outside and 110 inside. With your siblings and later on, maybe three channels on the T.V. if you were lucky,” Sternhagen said.
He wrote a book about his experiences with polio, “Normal for Me.” Someone he knows was talking with their mother about the book and got shocking news about their family.
“His dad purposely got stationed – he was in the military – got stationed in Alaska because Alaska basically didn’t have polio because of the weather … so parents went to some pretty good extremes,” Sternhagen said.
He compares the polio rules with the COVID-19 shelter in place rules, and “I guess I do kind of laugh, but … you guys got no idea what it was like,” Sternhagen said.
The 1952 outbreak in the United States has been deemed the worst by various sources, with more than 57,000 people coming down with it, more than 21,000 left with some form of paralysis and more than 3,200 people dying from it.
That outbreak spurred the search for a cure.
Vaccines and opportunity missed
By the summer of 1952, Dr. Jonas Salk was already working on an injected vaccine, using a “killed” virus. Albert Sabin was working on an oral vaccine, using a weakened polio virus. Neither ever patented their vaccines.
Extensive field trials were conducted in 1954: In the U.S., more than 600,000 school children were injected with the Salk vaccine or a placebo, and more than a million others participated as “observed” controls, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information’s website ncbi.nlm.nih.gov online.
By 1955, both vaccines were considered safe for use by the general public and the vaccinations began.
With a preventative for the scourge available, “everybody and their dog wanted it. They were lining up begging for it. They were sending letters to Jonas Salk begging for it, which is understandable,” Sternhagen said.
The vaccine was in short supply to begin with because of rigorous testing, and the high demand made it even more scarce, Sternhagen said.
Scotland, S.D., where Sternhagen was born, was “not a high priority area,” and the vaccine became available in December 1956.
“But I happened to be running a (temperature) when it was made available and the protocol was, if they’re running a temp, we don’t vaccinate,” Sternhagen said. Knowing what is now known, “it was probably safe,” he added, but they didn’t know that then. His siblings were vaccinated, but he wasn’t.
“I know for a fact that if I could’ve been vaccinated, I would’ve,” he said.
Without the protection, when the virus came around again in August 1957, Sternhagen, just 18 months old, contracted polio.
Contact Jodelle Greiner at [email protected]