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Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
The COVID-19 difficulties of the past year and now its new vaccine echo many of the struggles of the polio epidemic and its vaccine 65 years ago.
There were uncertainties, hospitalizations and fatalities. Irreversible changes became part of a new normal for many. And the rush for a vaccine was hopeful yet complicated.
“Polio is a disease about which little is known,” according to a Jan. 15, 1951, Gazette report. It noted 175 people in Linn County had been diagnosed with the disease the previous year. Five had died.
In terms of polio cases reported per 100,000 population, Iowa led the nation. And Linn County led the state.
It is believed poliomyelitis had been around for thousands of years.
The first documented outbreak in the United States was in Vermont in 1894. Awareness of the polio virus that spread the disease grew in the following decades as certain patterns were identified — infections increased in the summer months and children seemed particularly vulnerable. Mild symptoms were flu-like aches, fever and fatigue. Paralysis was possible, as was death.
Parents feared the worst every summer, according to a fascinating oral history interview with Cedar Rapidian Vernon Smith, one of many archived at The History Center. Smith was born in 1919 and graduated from Coe College in 1950. Two years later, he contracted polio and lost the use of three of his limbs. It happened 10 days after he’d earned a master’s degree at the University of Iowa.
“The only thing I can think of is that … I went swimming just the week before, in Lake Macbride, on a very hot August day,” Smith said in the 1985 interview. “It may have been in contact with large crowds that were trying to cool off at that time.”
The worst polio epidemic in the United States struck in 1952. Smith’s infection was one of 60,000 cases reported that summer. More than 200,000 Americans were disabled by polio in the first half of the ’50s. A national poll in 1955 found the atomic bomb was the only thing Americans feared more than polio.
Dr. Jonas Salk of the University of Pittsburgh was making headlines with a potential vaccine by early 1954. Thousands of people had been injected, with favorable results, but a much larger trial needed to take place before scientists or the press would call it an effective vaccine.
Three counties in Iowa were selected to participate in nationwide trials of Salk’s vaccine. The test participants would be first, second and third-graders in Linn, Woodbury and Scott counties. Written permission from parents was required. Salk vaccinated his own children, which reassured many parents.
On the last Friday of April 1954, 4,926 elementary school students in Linn County public and parochial schools got their first of three polio vaccine shots. That included 92 percent of the first- through third-graders at All Saints in Cedar Rapids.
Each child received a certificate for a bottle of Coca-Cola and a sucker, donated by the Cola-Cola Co. and the Exchange Club. Children who received a placebo would be prioritized to receive the actual vaccine shortly after the trial.
A year later, the results were in, and the country breathed a hopeful sigh of relief. The Salk vaccine was very effective. Five drug companies started producing the vaccine on a large scale per Salk’s specifications.
... and error
One company, Cutter Laboratories of Berkeley, Calif., failed to properly inactivate the polio strains in the vaccine and sent out more than 120,000 doses that contained live polio virus.
According to Paul A. Offit, author of “The Cutter Incident: How America’s First Polio Vaccine Led to the Growing Vaccine Crisis,” a recall was issued, but it was too late. Forty thousand people contracted a mild form of the disease, 51 people were paralyzed and five children died. Those infected by the Cutter vaccinatines infected others, too – another 113 people became paralyzed and five more died.
By 1962, 400 million doses of safe polio vaccinations had been administered, drastically reducing the incidence of polio in the nation. The 1954 vaccination trials in Cedar Rapids contributed to the success of the vaccination campaign while lowering the rate of polio in the area.
The polio vaccine was a few years too late for Vernon Smith. He spent four years recovering and wasn’t able to pursue the teaching opportunity in Virginia that he had accepted just before contracting the disease.
Vernon, who would spend his life in a wheelchair, taught himself to write with his other hand and worked as a chemist at St. Luke’s Hospital. He became a civil rights leader in Cedar Rapids and retired as head of the St. Luke’s lab after 35 years of service. He died Oct. 13, 1999, at age 73.
Joe Coffey, a freelance writer and content marketer in Cedar Rapids, writes this monthly column for The History Center. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org