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The mass inoculation of millions of American children against polio in 1955, as well as the vaccinations of millions of American adults against COVID-19 in 2021, was a triumph for science.
But the polio vaccine has been widely accepted by society, while persistent pockets of vaccine variability continue to exist in the United States for the COVID-19 vaccine. Why the difference? One reason, historians say, is that in 1955, many Americans had a particularly deep respect for science.
“If you had to choose a time as the highest point of respect for a scientific discovery, that would be it,” said David M. Oszynski, a medical historian at New York University and author of Polio: American History. “For the first time since World War II, you disconnected from the production line. People believed that infectious disease was like that [being] submissive. And then this amazing vaccine is announced. People couldn’t get it fast enough. “
Today, the unprecedented speed of development of COVID-19 vaccines, along with the flow of misinformation on the Internet about all vaccines, has led to continued hesitation among some Americans to obtain increasingly accessible images of COVID-19.
“Looking back, Operation Warp Speed was not the best name,” Oshinski said. “The project seems to prioritize speed over everything else. They deployed it quickly, but the FDA and CDC did an incredible job of testing vaccines and ensuring their safety and efficacy.”
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, polio disabled an average of 35,000 people a year in the United States, most of them children. As outbreaks erupted across the country during the hot summer months, people were horrified and voluntarily isolated. Many parents kept their children close to home and away from community gathering places such as movie theaters, slides and beaches.
“Then it affected business and travel,” said Stacey D. Stewart, current president and CEO of the Dimes March. “People didn’t know how the virus was transmitted. They lived in a state of fear. The pools were closed. The companies were affected because people didn’t want to go out in public.”
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who essentially lost the use of his legs after a polio infection in 1921 when he was 39, started the charity National Foundation for Polio in the late 1930s. Later renamed the March of Dimes, the foundation took a leading role in research funding efforts at a time when the National Institutes of Health was in its infancy.
“Roosevelt’s passion to find a solution – a cure, a vaccine – has made polio a priority coming from this country’s top leader,” Stewart said. “People all over the country felt as if they were being called to perform their duties. It was a call to action, like military efforts.”
An army of Dimes march volunteers, mostly mothers, went door-to-door, spreading the latest information on polio and efforts to stop it; they also asked for donations. They said that only a penny would help. And the pennies and dollars that are poured, Oshinsky says, are given to volunteers or put on cardboard displays at store counters or placed in envelopes sent directly to the White House.
Cases of polio may have peaked in the United States in 1952 with nearly 60,000 children infected. More than 3,000 died. (By comparison, approximately annual comparable statistics for the COVID-19 pandemic reveal more than 32 million reported cases in the United States to date and more than 573,000 deaths.)
The long-running campaign for information and donations for polio eradication efforts makes anxious Americans feel invested in a solution, Stewart said. The public was so confident in the research leading to the polio vaccine that by the time the Salk vaccine was ready for experimental testing in 1954, the parents of 600,000 children had voluntarily submitted their own offspring as subjects.
When the results of these studies showed that the vaccine was safe and effective in 1955, church bells rang. Loudspeakers in shops, offices and factories exploded in the news. People crowded around the radio stations. “There was rejoicing,” says Stewart. People couldn’t wait to sign their children for a shot.
Then a tragedy happened. One of the six laboratories producing the vaccine, Cutter Laboratories in Berkeley, California, made a terrible mistake. The exact list of ingredients for the Salk vaccine calls for the polio virus, which has been inactivated, but at the Cutter facility, the process of killing the virus has proved flawed. As a result, batches of the company’s vaccine came out, which were incorrectly contained active polio. Of the 200,000 children who received the defective vaccine, 40,000 received polio from it; 200 were left with varying degrees of paralysis and 10 died.
In April, the US campaign against COVID-19 also suffered a blow. Reports that an extremely rare but serious blood clotting disorder could result from the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, one of three approved for use against COVID-19 in the United States, again raise the question of whether the possible harm caused by the vaccine could derail confidence. of people in a public health campaign at a crucial time.
On April 13, the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration jointly announced that out of 6.8 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine administered to date, six cases of a serious blood clotting problem have been reported and one has killed a woman.
Ten days later, after careful review of these and other cases, the break was lifted and immunization with the vaccine was resumed, with new guidelines for recipients and physicians on what to look for in symptoms and how to treat these extremely rare events.
Polio vaccinations were suspended in 1955 following Cutter’s mistake. In both incidents, health officials followed science. After Cutter’s manufacturing error was identified as a problem, vaccinations were restarted within weeks, with renewed quality control efforts and minus any involvement from Cutter Laboratories.
In 1955, mothers and fathers jumped in immediately after Cutter’s tragedy, once again signing permit slips and arranging for their children to develop polio. It was widely understood and accepted that the risks of polio were a much greater threat than the risks of the vaccine.
“I think people were so personally invested in the vaccine back then,” Stewart said. “They listened to what happened in Cutter’s case and found out. They continued to trust each other.”
Because of this trust, the polio prevention campaign with vaccines – first of Jonas Salk and then of Albert Sabin – was successful, eventually almost eliminating the disease from the planet. But it also means, Oshinsky says, that people born after mass vaccination efforts have no memories of how bad the disease can be.
“Vaccines work … so well that they’ve destroyed evidence of what can cause the disease: children on crutches, in wheelchairs, in iron lungs,” Oshinski said. “I remember accidentally seeing an empty desk at school because a child had died. People had seen polio every summer and wanted the children to be vaccinated as soon as possible.”
Polio vaccine efforts offer some lessons for today, Stewart said. First, volunteers from local communities have confidence and are invaluable in providing education for diseases, research and vaccines. To get people’s attention, add to this numerous high-ranking advocates – people recognized and valued by various sections of the population. The Dimes March appointed Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney and Marilyn Monroe to join the fundraising effort to educate people about polio and the value of the vaccine. And in 1956, Elvis Presley was vaccinated behind the scenes at The Ed Sullivan Show.
At the time, vaccine efforts had to fight racism. Oshinsky writes, for example, about some areas of Jim Crow South, where black children lined up for shots on the front lawns of white schools while white children were photographed indoors. Black children, he notes, are not allowed to enter these white schools, even if they use the bathrooms. Aware of the prejudices of the times, Stewart says, the Dimes March knew he would also have to hire prominent and popular black performers to promote the polio vaccine.
Davis Jr. himself, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald joined the campaign. “There was a very early acknowledgment that you couldn’t just get white people talking about the vaccine,” Stewart said. In addition to favorite black celebrities, she says, “The Dimes March had black children on posters to raise awareness in black communities.”
It has been several months since Sandra Lindsey, a nurse on Long Island, New York, became the first person in the United States to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Currently, at least 30% of the country’s population is fully vaccinated and more than 44% have received at least one dose.
“These are the fruits with low suspension,” says Oshinsky. “Once you’ve vaccinated all the people who stand up for it, then you need to come up with strong marketing strategies for the hesitant.”
The strong, consistent message over the years of polio was, “We’re all in this together.” The same message, Stewart says, needs to come out clearly today.
Susan Brink is a freelance writer who reflects on health and medicine. She is the author of Fourth trimester and co – author of Change of heart.