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Eric Douglas sig

I’ve always been a bit of a history buff, but I’m definitely an amateur. I only know a little bit about a lot of things.

That said, I was really surprised a few days ago when I read an article about the polio outbreak of 1916.

Over the last six months, we’ve heard a lot about the Spanish Flu of 1918-1919. (Quick note: Most epidemiologists now think the Spanish Flu began in Haskell County, Kansas, and then spread to Europe with soldiers leaving to fight in World War I, not the other way around.)

But, I hadn’t heard anything about the polio outbreak during that period. Usually when you hear about polio, it is from the 1940s and ‘50s.

To recap, poliomyelitis is a virus-borne illness that causes paralysis and even death, especially when the paralysis affects the victim’s respiratory muscles.

In 1916, the iron lung that helped patients breathe wouldn’t be invented for another decade. Patients would literally suffocate because of polio.

The 1916 outbreak hit New York City especially hard. Within just a few short months that summer, it left 20,000 people paralyzed and another 6,000 dead.

They knew it was a virus but didn’t understand how it was transmitted. There were efforts to kill carriers like flies and mosquitoes. They also killed stray cats (like 50,000) and locked down entire streets when a victim was found.

You had to get a medical permission slip to even leave the city. Parents were afraid to send their kids out to play, and the school year for 1916-17 was canceled in the city.

For some reason, the Italian immigrant community was blamed for bringing polio into New York City, even though their actual infection rate was lower than the average. That led to people being beaten up and ostracized. No one ever found a direct connection between Italians and the virus, but that fear and anger lasted for another 50 years.

My takeaway from this piece of history is the current situation we find ourselves in is nothing haven’t been through before. The measures government officials took to deal with the polio outbreak were much harsher than what we are dealing with today.

Yes, the scientists have gotten some things wrong. And they have learned and changed recommendations, but no scientists have “lied” about the virus. (Politicians don’t fall into the same category.)

Our goal 104 years later should be to do a better job of at dealing with it before it gets further out of hand.

Eric Douglas, of Pinch, is the author of “Return to Cayman,” “Heart of the Maya,” “Cayman Cowboys,” “River Town” and other novels. He is also a columnist for Scuba Diving Magazine and a former Charleston Newspapers Metro staff writer. For more information, visit or contact him at