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Subsections of How Polio Changed Us are Disabilty RightsSocial EffectsScientific and Medical Legacy March of DimesFranklin D. Roosevelt The Medical WorldRehabilitationAssistive DevicesThe Iron Lung and Other Equipment
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How Polio Changed Us, Scientific and Medical Legacy

Quote. The late effects of polio have been recognized for more than a century with the first descriptions appearing in the French medical literature in 1875. Starting around 1970, [new] reports began to appear in the medical literature that persons who had paralytic poliomyelitis many years earlier were experiencing new health problems related to their prior illness. End Quote. Dr. Lauro Halstead, 2004

The scientific community and the government learned valuable lessons in response to polio. There were changes in government oversight of vaccine development and surveillance of clinical trials for vaccines and drugs, in design of laboratory facilities, and in the nature of rehabilitation.

Photo of polio patients in a large room
Rehabilitation Hospital with patients wearing chest respirators on tables and therapists working on their limbs, 1960s

As people who had had polio matured, they became a political and social force. By pushing legislation such as the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, they helped to bring about a consumer-oriented approach to health and to establish the idea that medical care is a right.

Previously, rehabilitation therapy had focused primarily on soldiers and their injuries, aiming “to restore the handicapped to the fullest usefulness of which they are capable,” as the National Council on Rehabilitation stated in 1942.

“The goal of total rehabilitation is to teach the physically handicapped person to live not just within the limits of his disability but to live to the hilt of his capabilities.”
—Dr. Howard Rusk, 1946

Childhood Immunization
Experience with the polio vaccine encouraged public health officers to think in broader terms. The effectiveness of the Sabin oral vaccine resulted in the Vaccination Assistance Act of 1962, a landmark in public health legislation. It provided the states with 36 million dollars to give free vaccines for polio and other childhood diseases. Coordinated by the Centers for Disease Control, the national effort eventually became the focus of an annual infant immunization week, launched in 1977.

Dr. Seuss poster with characteristic illustration and text stating at the bottom, help keep your kids healthy. Don't wait, Vaccinate!
Enlarge Image

Poster for National Infant Immunization Week, featuring Dr. Seuss, 1989 Courtesy of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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