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Here is a  guest blog from Helen Gelly, MD. I could not have said it better. — Caroline

Bright, intelligent, and (reasonably) well-educated medical professionals have seemingly lost their minds — tweeting and re-posting articles on social media about how compulsory mask-wearing is against their civil liberties. It is unfortunate that many people who majored in science were not required to take history. It seems that medical professionals who are not avid readers are unfamiliar with the history of plagues and the governmental response to those crises.

Polio: The Plague Our Grandparents Endured

Dr. Fife recently posted an article about the plagues of the ancient past, but there’s a lot we can learn from a more recent scourge that went around the world and lasted for DECADES. Polio is now an exotic medical condition that we rarely see nowadays. In 1916  a major epidemic of poliomyelitis hit the US. Of those afflicted, the vast majority had little or no symptoms. However, about 5% had flu-like symptoms, and of those most severely afflicted, 10-20% of adults died, and 2-5% of children died — of respiratory failure. An average of 35,000 patients a year had permanent and crippling complications. Do these statistics sound eerily familiar to those of COVID-19?

Physicians at the time had no treatment. Public health officials had one tool: QUARANTINE.

What did that mean? Well, the following measures were taken:

  1. Limited interstate and intercity commerce.
  2. Quarantine signs were posted on the door of your house telling people to keep away.
  3. Afflicted people were often removed from their homes involuntarily to be isolated on the polio wards.
  4. Parents did not let their kids go outside or to parties in the summer due to higher transmission rates. In 1916 SCHOOLS CLOSED for the academic year.
  5. Swimming pools and movie theaters were closed, people were shunned (now called social distancing) and businesses were closed city by city in an effort to stop the spread.
  6. Newspapers ran LISTS of the victims, including age, sex, type of paralysis (no HIPAA here).
  7. And this happened ANNUALLY.

Did it work? Well, mostly. Were there consequences to these draconian measures? Of course. What did it take to stop the scourge? A young man, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was paralyzed in 1921. Decades later, he helped found the March of Dimes, which was instrumental in raising funds to support the vaccine research that resulted in the development of the vaccine that has essentially eradicated polio in the United States, and almost eradicated it worldwide. Vaccine development took YEARS. All of this was happening while the Spanish Flu pandemic was raging, which separately may have taken the lives of another 1% of the population. And then there were two World Wars.

When we speak of the “Greatest Generation,” we forget what they endured: rationing of food and fuel, the decimation of families by wartime deaths, curfews and even involuntarily confinement for communicable diseases.

We need to learn a lesson from our more recent history. No one is asking us to do anything that has not been asked of Americans in the past — multiple times, sometimes annually. We should be grateful that ill family members are not being removed from our homes involuntarily, that we have at least some medical treatment for COVID-19, and that a vaccine will be developed in months rather than years. And we should be grateful that signs are not posted on our front doors, identifying the household as infected and telling people to keep away.

What can we learn from recent pandemic history?

Early on in the pandemic, “blue” states were mostly affected. But this virus is color blind, and now “red” states are the hot spots. The pattern of COVID-19 spread is a matter of geography. Politics has nothing to do with it. While some groups may be more susceptible, we are all equally at risk. What should we do?

Wearing masks has been shown to decrease disease transmission. It says you care about your neighbors. It IS a major pain in the ass. However, we ask the same of our surgeons and OR staff. Imagine your surgeon NOT wearing a mask, and coughing and spewing into your chest or brain –- arguing that surgical masks are not necessary because it impinges on their civil liberties. All the anti-maskers should sign a waiver the next time they have surgery stating that masks are optional in the operating room, since they are convinced it does no good to wear one.

Next time you think you have it bad, pick up a history book. It is time for this generation to grow up. We need to wear masks when we are outside and in contact with other people. We need to keep a reasonable distance from one another. We need to wash our hands. And for goodness sake, we need to stop complaining.


Dr. Fife sees patients at the CHI St. Luke's Hospital Wound Clinic in The Woodlands, Texas. For an appointment call (936) 266-2150.



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