Facing Polio: When The Vaccines Arrived

Eleanor Roosevelt, Jerry Farrell, Phyllis Lerner, Anthony Metzell, Betty Bagwell
Four children stricken with polio are visited by first lady Eleanor Roosevelt in Washington, D.C., Jan. 25, 1939. (AP Photo/Max Desfor)

 

A relative recalls the day in the ‘60s when he was taken to the gym at St. Dominic’s school. There, a nurse carried around a tray filled with small cups; each cup contained a sugar cube. For kids already living on a diet of candy, a sugar cube was an easy sell. Kids popped one in their mouths; chewed, swallowed and that was it. In their young lives, they had averted the horror that kids had faced for centuries but that had peaked in the United States over the past two decades. There was a splash of vaccine on each cube. Hail science! With each swallow, polio was finally being conquered.

Polio had been a frightening virus – killing many children, leaving others partially paralyzed for life. Part of the treatment involved being placed in a machine with a name that sounded as horrible as its appearance – the “iron lung.” There are heartbreaking picture of those coffin-like tanks with a child’s head sticking out from one end. A forerunner to today’s ventilators, those breathing machines were sometimes in use by one patient for a couple of weeks or longer. Amazingly, the photographers always seemed to get the kids to smile.

By the early 1950’s, researcher Jonas Salk developed the first mass-distributed vaccine, this one injected with a needle. Soon after Albert Sabin created the oral vaccine.

I knew a man who got the disease as a boy. Though his mind remained good, he was paralyzed from the waist down. Gradually, his legs atrophied from lack of use. If only he had been born a bit later. He was among the last generation of victims.

With the vaccine it was polio’s turn to die, and, except for a few far-flung isolated cases, the disease was eradicated.

Those were tense times. People of that Cold War era were coached to do escape drills for fear of the fallout from the Russians dropping a bomb on them. Now, at least, the kids had one less thing to worry about.

 

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