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Snuffing Out a Killer

The summer of 1952 wasn’t just another summer.  Swimming pools and movie theaters closed.  Children were kept inside their homes by frightened parents.

No doubt about it, people were scared.  They had every right to be.  It was an epidemic year for polio.  According to one study, the only thing they feared more than polio in 1952 was nuclear annihilation.  By the year’s end, more than 3,000 were dead and 58,000 new cases had been reported in the United States.  Many of the survivors were left crippled for life.

An early, unidentified photo of two young boys afflicted with polio.  The boy in the wagon has braces on both legs.

Polio first emerged in the United States in 1894, but the first large epidemic didn’t appear until 1916 when 27,000 cases were recorded and 6,000 died.  Children, especially infants, were among the worst affected.  Adults, however, were not exempt.  Future president Franklin D. Roosevelt was stricken in 1921 at the age of 39.  At its peak in the 1940s and 1950s, polio killed over half a million people worldwide every year.  No one knew then the cause of the disease, and there was, and is, no known cure.

Sometime later it was determined that polio enters the body through the mouth and is acquired through drinking water or ingesting food contaminated by feces. Knowing the cause, however, did not eradicate the disease, and cases of polio in 1952 resulted in 3,145 deaths.

In 1953, Dr. Jonas Salk developed a vaccine believed to prevent polio.  During the next two and a half years he worked incessantly to perfect it.  His research was funded by the March of Dimes.  Finally it was introduced for use in the general population in 1955.

On April 14, 1955, the Bloomington Daily Telephone reported on page one that a mass inoculation of first- and second-grade students at their schools would begin on Monday assuming that the vaccine arrived on schedule.  It was also noted that no student would receive the vaccine without written parental permission.

Four days later, on April 18, an update in the Daily Herald Telephone indicated that Bloomington was one of the first counties in Indiana to get the free polio vaccine.  It was part of a multi-million-dollar project across the U. S.  Mrs. Walter Homann, a Bloomington school nurse, picked up the vaccine from the State Board of Health on Sunday and the first shot was administered to Barbara Rumple at the Waterworks School on Monday morning.  At the end of the day, according to the Telephone, 446 students had been inoculated.

By the end of the week, according to the Daily Herald Telephone on April 23, a total of 1, 588 first- and second-graders throughout Monroe county had been inoculated.  The second round of shots within the schools was scheduled to take place in May before students were sent home for the summer, and parents were advised that they were responsible for obtaining a third or “booster” shot for their children from a doctor due seven months after the second shot was administered.

Students at Phillips, Hillside, Broadview and the Waterworks schools received their second round of the vaccine on May 19, 1955, which exhausted the supply leaving 1,000 children without their second shot.  It was not certain if or when more vaccine would be available.

Just how long in-school inoculations were made available is not known with certainty, but newspaper reports indicate at least through 1956.  That’s the same year that several football players at IU were sent to the hospital with polio at which point all IU students were encouraged to start the Salk series.  The following year, 1957, the Anti-Polio Committee urged everyone through age 40 to protect themselves and their families against polio.

Unidentified photo of a child receiving an injection.

Between 1955 and 1962, more than 400 million doses of the polio vaccine were distributed reducing the cases of polio by 90%.  By the end of the century, the polio scare was but a dim memory.   Although there is no federal law today that mandates a polio vaccination, every state in the U. S. now requires that children entering childcare or public school be vaccinated.  The Center for Disease Control recommends that children receive four doses of polio vaccine:  at 2 months, 4 months, between the ages 6 and 8 months and between the ages of 4 and 6 years old.

Polio, this once lethal killer having been essentially snuffed out, leads to optimism that the same can be accomplished with the coronavirus.  Medical research holds out the promise that the coronavirus can be eliminated with effective treatment and vaccine.

Sources:

  • Bloomington (IN) Daily Herald Telephone, May 19, 1955, p. 1.
  • Bloomington (IN) Daily Herald Telephone, April 23, 1956, p.1.
  • Sheboygan (WI) Press, September 25, 1956, p. 23.
  • Bloomington (IN) Daily Herald Telephone, April 1, 1957, p. 1.
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