Comparing the Polio Virus with the Coronavirus


Although it has been said that we are living in unprecedented times, which may be true, we tend to forget about other periods in history that also experienced a pandemic. The era of the poliovirus, which killed and maimed many, is one of these periods which can be compared to the times we are now experiencing.  However, there is one significant difference, that being, polio is an old disease, while coronavirus is a new virus until now, unknown to man. Both, unfortunately, are highly contagious.

The following series of blogs is a comparison between the A poliovirus and B. the coronavirus under the following headings: Identifying names, symptoms, severity, effects, origin, method of spreading, testing, the most vulnerable, the season of occurrence, prevention, vaccines, collaboration, medical equipment, moral dilemmas, and recurrence.

Note:  Today many people, especially those who are younger have never heard of polio, thanks to the polio vaccine. However, despite the tremendous global effort and encouraging results, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria have never been able to eradicate polio. And as long as there is even one case anywhere in the world, polio is not yet eradicated, which is of concern since it can easily travel to different parts of the world.  However, since most countries no longer have polio cases, I will be referring to polio in the past tense in this article.

Identifying Names

A Poliomyelitis was the first scientific name used to describe the virus which comes from the words-Polios which is the Greek word for grey – referring to the grey matter of the nervous system, and Myelos the word for marrow referring to the myelin sheath surrounding specific nerve fibres since the poliovirus attacks the nervous system. However, it was commonly referred to as polio by the general public. Other names included infantile paralysis, spinal disease, Roosevelt’s Disease and the summer plague.

B Coronavirus, COVID-19, The World Health Organization (WHO) gave the virus this identification Feb. 2020. It is the short form for coronavirus disease 2019.


A   Polio symptoms could start out by having trouble breathing and trouble swallowing and speaking, or having muscle pain, neck and back stiffness,  spastic reflexes, fever, headache, vomiting and fatigue. However, if the virus was the paralytic type, a week after experiencing the above symptoms, more severe symptoms would appear such as loss of reflexes, severe spasms and muscle pain, loose or floppy limbs (could be one side only) and deformed limbs, especially in the hip, ankle and feet.

B  Coronavirus symptoms include fever, headache, dry cough, sore throat, respiratory problems, nausea or vomiting, diarrhea, congestion, runny nose, muscle and body aches and fatigue.

Note:  Having symptoms very similar to the flu these viruses were often mistaken for influenza.

Severity of the virus

A.Polio not only paralyzed thousands of children every year but also was fatal for many. As such it was one of the most feared diseases of industrialized countries because it occurred without warning and no one knew what caused it or knew how to treat it.

B. COVID19 caused havoc around the world on a scale we have not seen in recent years resulting in many deaths as well as an economic disaster with all but essential services being shut down. Lack of enough equipment such as ventilators and masks, gloves, gowns etc. have made front line workers vulnerable and fearful.

Both viruses spread very rapidly both quickly turning into an epidemic and then a pandemic (worldwide), along with the negative psychological effects of stress which both caused.

 Physical Effects of the virus

A Whole families were quarantined and some patients needed to be in an iron lung resulting in being separated from family and far from home. Some were disabled ending up being in a wheelchair for life. The school term was altered, churches, movie theatres and swimming pools were closed Also, there was a scarcity of equipment such as iron lungs. And there were many deaths. Parents were asked to keep their children inside the house or within their yards.

B Many have been hospitalized with some being able to regain their health, but also many dying. Quarantines,  self-isolation, social distancing and wearing a mask became mandatory.  Heart issues, side effects from the virus have resulted in blood clots, men being the most seriously affected. Children, although thought not to be affected by COVID19  at first, began showing baffling new symptoms such as corona toes, a red blotchy rash, similar to Kawasaki disease. Children also have become sick with inflamed blood vessels. Some have arrived at Sick Kids in Toronto with swollen lips, eyes, tongue, as well as the soles of their feet.

Where did Each Virus Originate?

A The virus was first identified in the Rhesus monkey but polio actually occurred thousands of years ago in different parts of the world before it was recorded as a disease in the late 18th century.  By the 19th century it as widespread in Europe.  Epidemics were not known in the United States until the early 20th century- the first epidemic occurring in Vermont in 1894. And in 1952, polio cases were at their highest in the United States.  Meanwhile, Canada had its first polio case in 1910 but got very little national attention until much later. The worst period was between 1927 and 1953 with the 1940s and 50s having the largest number with the disease.

B The Coronavirus came from a live animal market in Wuhan, China. It is thought that a bat carried the virus. In the meantime, the virus has spread throughout the world, including the United States and Canada.

How do the Viruses Spread?

A. Poor sanitation was thought as a possible way the poliovirus might spread.  Also,  insects like flies were suspect as carriers.  Infected water was another possible consideration. Or that it might be carried in the air.  The final conclusion was that the poliovirus was usually spread through the feces of a person infected with the virus. In areas of poor sanitation where there was limited running water or flush toilets, the virus spread rapidly getting into the water supply. It also could enter the body through food handled by someone with the virus or through infected drinking water contaminated by human waste. It could also spread by the droplets from a sneeze or a cough, although this was considered to happen less often.

B. The coronavirus spread through having close contact with others who are infected ( even unknowingly). Hence the social distancing rule of keeping 6 feet apart. Being in large crowds was forbidden. Touching hands to one’s face, nose or eyes, sneezing/coughing without covering one’s mouth, not washing hands thoroughly, and touching objects such as phones, computers etc could also spread the virus.

Recently,  some communities in the United States are testing wastewater samples to see if COVID19 shows up and if so to what degree. Public Health Officials can then use this information as an indicator of trends. This was also done during the polio epidemic. However, there are some limitations to this type of testing,  due to the age and type of sewage system.

How is Testing done?

A  Testing for the poliovirus was done by a throat swab as well as testing a stool sample. Also, If you could not lift your head enough to look at your belly button, you were almost sure to have the poliovirus. However, the definitive test is a painful procedure known as a spinal tap or lumbar puncture, when a needle is inserted into the spine to get out some of the liquid to check for the virus.

B Screening is done for COVID19 by taking a nasal swab, checking the temperature of an individual and having them respond to specific questions relating to COVID symptoms followed by a  COVID19 test if the person is symptomatic  The test confirms a positive or negative diagnosis for COVID-19. Essential workers were tested on a regular basis as well as those having tested positive.

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