The post-World War II polio outbreaks that preceded the vaccine developed by Dr. Jonas Salk hit Kansas and the nation hard, with about 20,000 people a year nationwide contracting the paralyzing disease between 1945 and 1949. By 1953, the number of victims had jumped to 35,000.
Elva Suderman, 76, of Hillsboro, is living testimony to those frightening times. She contracted polio in 1948 at the age of 13.
“I remember waking up one morning and having trouble getting out of bed,” she said. “When I did get out of bed, I fell to the floor. I couldn’t move.”
Suderman said she spent the next two and a half months in a Wichita hospital.
“When I got my eighth-grade diploma, I had two crutches and braces on both legs,” she recalled. “By the time I got to high school, I’d practiced so hard I was down to one brace. I spent that whole summer going up and down stairs, getting ready for school.”
Today, Suderman can’t walk or stand.
“What I tell people is they’re only one plane ride away from being exposed to polio,” she said. “Most developed countries are polio-free, but there are still some that aren’t—Nigeria and Pakistan being the bigger ones.”
Suderman said it is hard for her to understand why some parents would not want their children immunized.
“Look at me,” she said. “Do you really want your child to be in a wheelchair? Do you really want to risk that with your child?”
By 1955, field trials had shown the Salk vaccine was successful in preventing the illness.
In 1957, the small southwest Kansas town of Protection made national news after every resident under age 40 had been vaccinated, making it the first city in the United States to be “100 percent protected” against polio.