Physician, patient reflect on 1952 polio epidemic


May 15th, 2014

Omaha, NE — Dr. Byron Oberst was a 29-year-old physician at the Children’s Hospital in Omaha when it happened.


“All of a sudden like an express train or a tornado, the polio epidemic hit Omaha and the state of Nebraska with a gusto,” Oberst said. “People were just panic stricken. They didn’t know where to turn or what to do.”

It was 1952 and the polio epidemic had reached its height. Nearly 60,000 cases were reported that year in the United States. More than 3,000 people would die from the disease and more than 21,000 would go on to live with mild to severe paralysis and disabilities.

Oberst retired from medicine in 1988. The now 91-year-old describes that time as…

Dr. Byron Oberst was a young physician when the Omaha epidemic hit Omaha. (Photo Courtesy KVNO News)

Dr. Byron Oberst was a young physician when the Omaha epidemic hit Omaha. (Photo Courtesy KVNO News)

“A nightmare…a total nightmare…there were so many children that were so sick.”

Recently, the World Health Organization declared the spread of polio as a public health emergency of international concern.

According to WHO, polio cases have decreased by more than 99 percent.  Currently there are 10 countries infected by wild polio virus: Afghanistan, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Iraq, Israel, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia and the Syrian Arab Republic. Of those countries, Pakistan, Cameroon and the Syrian Arab Republic are exporting the virus.

WHO has recommended vaccinations for all children in those countries.

Gretchen Bren is the executive director of the Omaha Rotary. Members of the organization work with other groups to eradicate polio.

Bren said immunizations are a key part to ensuring no new cases of the virus.

“It’s extremely important in the areas where polio is still spreading,” Bren said. “We want to keep up with our vaccinations because you never know when someone could come into the country who is carrying the polio virus.”

Dr. Oberst said protection from infectious diseases is a dependent cycle.

“The herd effect,” he said. “If everybody in the herd is vaccinated then everybody’s safe. If you get one of them that’s not vaccinated then that’s bad because that exposes everybody.”

The Salk vaccine was introduced in 1955– three years after Tim Roche was infected with the virus.

“I was 14-years-old and had just started my first week in high school experiencing kind of severe flu like symptoms, aches and pains,”  Roche said.

Roche lived in Indianapolis, Ind., with his family. None of whom ever thought any of them would become infected.

While walking home from school one day, Roche stopped at a doctor’s office to be seen for his symptoms. He went home to rest that night, but the next morning he couldn’t move his left leg.

“I spent two weeks in isolation,” Roche said. “The paralysis went across my abdominal area and down my right leg and stopped at this point on my feet. My toes curled under. I had flexors, no extenders.”

Roche spent two and a half months in physical therapy and received his first pair of leg braces on New Year’s Eve 1952.

The 76-year-old is professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s School of Pharmacology. While Roche was cured of the virus, he still lives with post-polio syndrome every day.


Ted Roche was 14-years-old when he received his first pair of leg braces. (Photo Courtesy KVNO News)

Ted Roche was 14-years-old when he received his first pair of leg braces. (Photo Courtesy KVNO News)

He said his biggest health challenges have only occurred in the last 10 years, but he has had other challenges to face in his daily life.

“Those first fifty years the challenges were convincing other people that I could do what I said I could do,”Roche said. “That I could stand in the classroom, that I could write on the chalkboard, that I could stand on one cane.”

Roche described viruses as scary things capable of changing into new strains, which is even more of a reason to make sure that polio is eradicated.

 “The scare is if we’re not mindful of how we got rid of this disease in the beginning we’re going to have it back again,” Roche said.

WHO has also recommended that residents, visitors and travelers to areas where polio transmission is possible, receive booster immunizations and have proof of vaccination.

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