This article seeks to advance an understanding of the spatial dynamics of one of the great emergent viral diseases of the twentieth century—poliomyelitis. From an apparently rare clinical condition occurring only sporadically or in small outbreaks before the late nineteenth century, poliomyelitis had, by the early 1950s, developed into a globally distributed epidemic disease. But, from 1955, continued growth was suddenly and dramatically reversed by the mass administration of inactivated (killed) and live (attenuated) poliovirus vaccines. After almost half a century of vaccine control, the world now stands on the brink of the global eradication of the disease. Against this background, the article draws upon information included in the U.S. Public Health Service’s Public Health Reports and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report to examine the spatial dynamics of poliomyelitis during the phases of epidemic emergence (1910–1955) and vaccine-induced retreat (1955–1971) in the United States. It is shown that epidemic emergence was accompanied by shifts in the spatial center of activity from early diffusion poles in the northeastern states, to the western seaboard, and then finally to cover all the states of the Union. This was accompanied by accelerating epidemic propagation. The introduction of mass vaccination from the mid-1950s realigned spatial transmission of the disease, producing increased spatial volatility in the geographical center of activity and heightened dependence of epidemic outbreaks upon endemic reservoirs in the most populous states. Finally, the empirical results are generalized to suggest that the emergence and reemergence of many infectious diseases is a distinctively geographical process.
Keywords: emerging diseases, epidemics, poliomyelitis, spatial diffusion, United States of America