Mississippi’s 1936 response to polio: A contrast to the 2021 response to Covid and the Delta variant

Back in October 2020, I posted about the history of poliomyelitis and the efforts to produce an effective vaccine. Yesterday while doing some New Deal research, I ran across a couple of articles from 1936 about Mississippi’s response to prevention of polio. I could not help but contrast the response to the present situation, and frankly, wonder if the world has lost its collective mind.

Item 1

Dr. H. C. Ricks was the director of the division of epidemiology for the Mississippi state board of health in 1936. The state board had received complaints that some druggists were recommending and selling alternative nasal sprays–with unknown and unproven results–for the prevention of infantile paralysis. Mississippi had 32 cases of infantile paralysis–poliomyelitis–reported from July 1 until August 11. Dr. Ricks and Dr. Felix J. Underwood of the state board of health were visiting the counties with cases reported. They issued the following statement:

It has been reported to the state board of health that some druggists, instead of preparing the nasal spray for the prevention of poliomyelitis as recommended by the U. S. public health service and endorsed by the state board of health, are recommending several solutions, the contents of which are either valueless or unknown.

Any druggist guilty of this practice should be boycotted by his customers as several sprays were tried by the U. S. public health service before the present formula was discovered and none of them gave the results that this recommended spray does in the prevention of poliomyelitis.

It is hoped that this report to the state board of health is untrue. If it is true, we hope that the druggists will realize the responsibility they are assuming in selling a substitute article which may cause some person’s child to develop poliomyelitis rather than to prevent poliomyelitis.

Official Scores Polio Spray Sub: Dr. Ricks hits at druggists who sell unrecommended solution. Clarion-Ledger, August 11, 1936, p. 1.

Since I was not born in 1936, it is not odd that I never knew there was a nasal spray recommended to prevent polio. As usual, I looked it up. The Health Officer, vol. 1, no. 1-12 for May 1936-April 1937 provided specific instructions for creating the spray and the results of studies that demonstrated its effectiveness. The American Journal of Public Health and The Nation’s Health, February 1937, vol. 27, no. 2 published Senior Surgeon, National Instituted of Health, U. S. Public Health Service Charles Armstrong, M. D., Sc.D., F. A. P. H. A., about the experience with the picric acid-alum spray in the prevention of poliomyelitis in Alabama, 1936. The first field trial was conducted in Alabama where a major outbreak had occurred. The health service provided extensive training in the protocols to the physicians who would administer the spray and maintain records. However, some physicians did not want to administer the spray and instead “felt” parents could do it, and advised them to purchase the materials needed and “spray their own families.” The situation was the same, according to Armstrong, in Tennessee and Mississippi.

Essentially, the conclusions reached by the study were impacted by the inconsistent method of spraying by non-medical people (i.e., parents) and the resistance of the children to the procedure. Also a factor in infection was the discontinuance of the spraying regimen or sporadic application. Infections among the sprayed group (however problematic the spraying regimen might have been) indicated that infection was “somewhat less” than the calculated incidence based upon the rate in the unsprayed control group.”

Item 2

In a prequel to the current debated issues of in person/virtual schools and mask required/mask not allowed, two items were in the 1936 Mississippi news regarding schools and poliomyelitis.

Plans to open schools in counties affected with poliomyelitis, which have either closed after the beginning of the session or postponed their opening date, were the latest developments in the battle state health officials are waging to keep the number of cases of infantile paralysis down in Mississippi.

Schools may open on September 7, provided that recommendations of the state board of health in reference to spraying students and teachers be enforced, said Mr. Vandiver [state superintendent of education]. Full directions relative to the use of the spray are being mailed to each county superintendent of education and county health officer.

We are recommending that the schools be allowed to open on the condition that the children and teachers begin the use of the spray now and continue it according to the directions issued by the United States public health service after school opens,” Dr. Ricks said yesterday.

Meanwhile, the state total of polio cases was increased to 66 yesterday as cases were reported in Coahoma and Itawamba counties.

Schools in State to Open: Season for spread of dread paralysis is believed nearing end. Clarion-Ledger, August 27, 1936, p. 1.

Item 3

The Itawamba county superintendent of education, D. E. Leech, announced opening of county schools had been indefinitely postponed due to the number of cases of polio. Vandiver and Dr. Underwood of the state health office “ordered that no schools be allowed to open in this county until the threat of paralysis epidemic subsides.” This order came after two cases of infantile paralysis had been reported in Itawamba county (Upstate county schools closed. August 27, 1936, Clarion-Ledger, p. 3).

It is worth noting that on August 14, 2021, Governor Tate Reeves of Mississippi is seen during a news briefing maskless, while state health officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs, wearing a N95 mask, has to provide accurate information to the governor on the number of child deaths from Covid. A 13 year old died the following day, hours after testing positive following 2 weeks in school. Reeves said he had “no intention of issuing a statewide mask mandate for any category of Mississippians…I don’t know how I can say that differently..” Reeves also called CDC guidelines “foolish” and “harmful” during a July press conference. Dr. Dobbs had only minutes before urged masking in schools, saying, “We do know kids in a structured setting with masks on is the right thing to do to keep kids in schools longer.”

At the time of the press conference, Mississippi had 0 adult ICU beds available in the entire state. The only pediatric hospital announced it was also full, including ICU and children on ventilators for life support. The governor was unable to say how many children under age 18 had died from Covid, and thought perhaps one or maybe two. It was actually 5 and by the following morning, 6. The University of Mississippi Medical Center has opened a second field hospital in the garage. Mississippi is currently designated as the worst state in the nation related to Covid infections, deaths are increasing, and currently, children between ages 11-17 have the highest infection rate in the state. Dobbs reported 93% of the recent Covid infections are the Delta variant, and 95% of new cases are unvaccinated.

Governor Reeves says he and state officials “have done everything we can” and defended his refusal to order a mask mandate. Over 4,400 students in 43 counties are quarantined due to Covid-19 exposure (Haselhorst, Clarion-Ledger, August 17, 2021). Mississippi’s statewide vaccination rate is 34%.

I thought this morning about a pastor I worked with who said of West Texas, “You don’t start a farm in the middle of the desert and then pray for rain.” I am fine with Governor Reeves for “praying” in response to the pandemic. I am not fine with him not taking responsibility for preventing needless deaths and severe illness, causing the collapse of the medical infrastructure in Mississippi, and endangering children and others out of some sense of moral outrage over requiring people to do the right thing. The life you save might well be your own, and not just from preventing Covid. It could be a disaster now for someone in a car wreck, or having a heart attack, or any other condition that might require an ICU bed and emergency care. What has happened to our willingness to do things for the common good? Good thing folks during the Great Depression and World War II did not think like some folks today. There are some outcomes that are just good for all of us.

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9 Responses to Mississippi’s 1936 response to polio: A contrast to the 2021 response to Covid and the Delta variant

  1. Beth says:

    I wonder how effective the spray (when correctly mixed and administered) was in preventing the spread of the polio virus. The actual vaccine took a long time to develop and I wonder if this spray contributed to its development. .

    Liked by 1 person

    • Suzassippi says:

      Apparently better than in the field trials. The Health Journal cited several studies that showed it was more effective than doing nothing–sort of like masking and distancing. They thought the virus could pass through the nasal passages and olfactory nerves, and also through the eyes. The solution was most effective when used regularly at least every other day, and correctly hit the top of the nasal passage with 3-4 bursts of spray. Unlike a vaccine, you could not just do it once and that was it.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Betty says:

    It does seem a good part of the world has lost its collective mind. And the effects are enough to be dangerous to everybody. I say my prayers for our world because I’m not sure what else I can do!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. davidprosser says:

    What is the mattterf with people. Very few of us don’t have a young person is the family. Our own child, our grandchild or maybe a nephew/neice.Do we honestly think so much aoout what we say, in comparison to the medical professionals that we’d rather risk a child’s life than back down on something so simple? You don’t risk your own life if you mask up, but you might risk mine if you don’t.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Suzassippi says:

      I know, David. I truly do not get the parents who are outraged at the idea of their child wearing a mask…children with cancer have been wearing them for years to protect themselves, and so have their parents and healthcare providers.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. “What has happened to our willingness to do things for the common good?”. We Americans have become the most self obsessed and selfish people ever since the nation was formed. I don’t know how that happened to us. Maybe it was a function of comfortable living, a surfeit of material possessions, and too much plenty in the post World War 2 era. Everyone’s reaction to any social or economic issue is me me me, even when, as in the present medical emergency, the outcome is self a destructive. I do not see an obvious solution. But it demonstrates the race to the bottom on which we have been heading for 30+ years. The 21st century will definitely not be the American century.

    Liked by 2 people

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