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March of Dimes

My dad had weird feet.

He was born in 1942, and when he was just a few years old, he caught polio. He survived the disease, but it affected the way his legs and feet grew — one foot was always a shoe size or two smaller than the other one. I remember being fascinated by them when I was little.

Though polio affected my father, I myself have never been in danger of contracting it.

In fact, the disease has disappeared completely from the United States, and we're incredibly close to eliminating it worldwide.


But as much as we should celebrate its passing, we should also remember what it was like when polio affected people everywhere. And though these photos may be somber, they should also give us hope; they prove that we can overcome the worst obstacles and most pernicious infections. After all, we've done it before.

Check out these photos of what polio looked like when my dad was a kid.

Polio was a scourge. It could affect anyone. But it preyed most heavily on children.

A child paralyzed by polio in 1947. Photo by Keystone Features/Getty Images.

A young patient getting fit with a respirator in 1955. Photo by Three Lions/Getty Images.

Polio's actually a lot older than my father was. We even have paintings of it from ancient Egypt.

This over-3,300-year-old Egyptian stele is thought to depict a polio victim. Image via Deutsches Grünes Kreuz/Wikimedia Commons.

For most of that time, polio was content to remain quiet.

But in the 19th and 20th centuries, it became a killer. In 1952, an outbreak killed over 3,000 people and paralyzed over 21,000 in the U.S. alone.

Photo from Douglas Grundy/Three Lions/Getty Images.

Polio is a virus passed mostly through contaminated food and water. And as long as we humans were spread out, it never got the momentum to really become a problem. But as cities grew and, ironically, better sanitation came about and removed some of our natural exposure to it, polio suddenly found a weak spot in our defenses.

Children were most at risk of contracting the virus – hence one of its common names: infantile paralysis.

Photo by Sonnee Gottlieb/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

In most cases, it's either harmless or mild, like a case of the flu. But in some people, polio can cause serious, sometimes permanent paralysis.

A paralyzed kid at London's Queen Mary's Hospital in 1947. Photo by George Konig/Keystone Features/Getty Images.

If the virus ends up in the central nervous system, it interrupts our body's ability to communicate with our muscles, causing paralysis. And if the paralysis lasts for a long time, the muscles themselves can start to waste away, a process known as atrophy.

This is already bad, but there's one more cruel twist to the disease. If a child is the one who gets paralyzed, the muscle atrophy can end up affecting the way their bones grow. That's what happened with my dad and why his feet looked so weird.

If the diaphragm was paralyzed, patients would need respirators to be able to breathe. Some respirators were portable, like this one.

A portable respirator from 1955. Photo by Hans Meyer/BIPs/Getty Images.

For a given value of "portable."

Others, like the iron lung, effectively trapped you inside.

An iron lung in 1938. Photo from London Express/Getty Images.

If you did recover, you may have still needed regular physical therapy to strengthen the atrophied muscles. Aquatic therapy was popular.

Photo by Juliette Lasserre/BIPs/Getty Images.

At its height, polio was one of the great public specters. People were terrified of it. Public pools were closed in a misguided effort to stop the spread. Houses were quarantined.

A board of health warning circa 1910. Image from National Library of Medicine/Wikimedia Commons.

There were public health campaigns and donation drives to help fuel research, like the March of Dimes.

A cartoon from 1943. Image from U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons.

Still, nobody seemed safe. Even President Franklin Roosevelt had it, although he was careful about hiding his paralysis from the outside world.

A rare photograph of FDR in his wheelchair. Image from Margaret Suckley/Wikimedia Commons.

It was one of the great scourges of its time.

Then, in the early 1950s, Jonas Salk invented the first polio vaccine.

Photo by Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

Salk was a researcher and virologist who joined the fight against polio in the late 1940s. Initially tasked with identifying different strains of the virus, Salk and his team saw an opportunity to try to prevent the disease altogether, and their work paid off.

Manufacturers began to mass produce it.

Workers at England's Glaxo company in 1956. Photo from Fox Photos/Getty Images.

Suddenly, people could save their children from this awful disease.

Photo by Monty Fresco Jnr/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images.

As people became immunized against it, the disease had a harder and harder time spreading between populations. Numbers of infections started to fall.

And, slowly, polio transformed from a demonic specter into a manageable disease, then, eventually, into a distant memory.

A woman examines a gigantic model of a single polio virus capsule in 1959. Photo from Fox Photos/Getty Images.

Thanks to the vaccines created by Salk and other researchers, most of the world began to forget this disease.

Today, we're on the cusp of eradicating polio altogether. Its last holdouts are in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria.

A child afflicted with polio in Afghanistan in 2009. Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images.

We're really close. In fact, one of polio's three strains has already been eliminated.

Photo by A Majeed/AFP/Getty Images.

Which is why the U.N. switched to a two-strain vaccine in May of 2016.

In 2015, there were only 74 recorded cases of polio in the entire world. Just 74!

A Pakistani child receives the oral polio vaccine in 2016. Photo from Banaras Khan/AFP/Getty Images.

Polio has no natural reservoir. It has no place to hide. Once it's gone, it's gone.

We might never be able to eliminate the flu because it can hide in so many animals, like birds or pigs. But polio only infects humans. So when all humans are immunized, polio will disappear.

We're so close to eliminating a horrible disease thanks to researchers like Salk and workers dedicated to administering vaccinations. There are occasional setbacks, such as a recent shortage of the new vaccine, but researchers hope to completely eliminate the disease by the end of this decade.

We can overcome the worst demons. We have before. And we can do it again.

In the future, the only place where polio will exist is in picture archives like these. And the memories of my dad's poor feet.

Courtesy of Elaine Ahn

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Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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