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The outbreak had forced children into extremely restrictive environments. Patients were confined by equipment, and parents kept healthy children inside for fear they might catch the disease. Candy Land offered the kids in Abbott’s ward a welcome distraction—but it also gave immobilized patients a liberating fantasy of movement. That aspect of the game still resonates with children today.
Poliomyelitis—better known as polio—was once a feared disease. It struck suddenly, paralyzing its victims, most of whom were children. The virus targets the nerve cells in the spinal cord, inhibiting the body’s control over its muscles. This leads to muscle weakness, decay, or outright fatality in extreme cases. The leg muscles are the most common sites of polio damage, along with the muscles of the head, neck, and diaphragm. In the last case, a patient would require the aid of an iron lung, a massive, coffinlike enclosure that forces the afflicted body to breathe. For children, whose still-developing bodies are more vulnerable to polio infection, the muscle wastage from polio can result in disfigurement if left untreated. Treatment typically involves physical therapy to stimulate muscle development, followed by braces to ensure that the affected parts of the body retain their shape.
Vaccines appeared in the 1950s, and the disease was essentially eradicated by the end of the millennium. But in the mid-century, polio was a medical bogeyman, ushering in a climate of hysteria. “There was no prevention and no cure,” the historian David M. Oshinsky writes.“Everyone was at risk, especially children. There was nothing a parent could do to protect the family.” Like the outbreak of AIDS in the 1980s, polio’s eruption caused fear because its vectors of transmission were poorly understood, its virulence uncertain, and its repercussions unlike those of other illnesses. Initially, polio was called “infantile paralysis” because it struck mostly children, seemingly at random. The evidence of infection was uniquely visible and visceral compared with that of infectious diseases of the past, too. “It maimed rather than killed,” as Patrick Cockburn puts it. “Its symbol was less the coffin than the wheelchair.”
Children of the era faced an unenviable lot, whether infected with polio or not. Gerald Shepherd provides a glimpse of the paranoiac atmosphere of the polio scare and its effects on children in a firsthand account of his San Diego childhood in the late 1940s, at the height of the epidemic. Quarantine and seclusion were the most common preventative measures:
Our parents didn’t know what to do to protect us except to isolate us from other children … One time I stuck my hand through a window and badly cut myself, and despite several stitches and wads of protective bandaging, my father still grounded me that week for fear polio germs might filter in through the sutures.
Kids his age were well aware of what polio could do. “Every time one of our buddies got sick,” Shepherd recollects, “we figured he was headed for the iron lung.” If you caught polio, you would be committed to a hospital with a chance of being forever anchored to a machine. If you didn’t catch it, you would be stuck indoors for the foreseeable future (which, from a child’s perspective, might as well be forever).