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The vaccine that finally came

In April 1954, more than 87% of Medford parents of first- and second-graders quickly returned consent slips allowing their children to receive the Salk anti-polio vaccine.

Those students represented about one-third of Jackson County’s youngsters who were eligible to receive the vaccine.

The government had just authorized a national plan to inoculate the country’s children. The first two of three injections were free, paid for by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (Polio). Individuals would pay for the final booster shot; however, many health departments across the country decided not to charge.

A year earlier, a mass testing of the vaccine on nearly a half-million children in 44 states and also in Canada and Finland proved it safe and effective. Over 1.3 million children in those areas didn’t receive the shots and served as the control group.

Polio had attacked people, particularly young people, for centuries, although most breakouts were small and isolated. The first major epidemic noted in the United States was in New England in 1894. There were 132 cases and 18 deaths. The worst outbreak struck in 1916, primarily in New York, with 27,000 cases and more than 6,000 deaths.

The seriousness of the 1916 epidemic and the yearly return of the disease stimulated a decades-long search for a vaccine.

In 1927, Harvard University scientists announced an early “serum” being tested in a Massachusetts hospital, but warned the public “against assuming that a cure for the epidemic disease had been found.” It was a wise warning. The Harvard serum and others that followed claimed “wonderful results,” but all proved to be worthless.

In March 1953, Dr. Jonas Salk, director of the Virus Research Laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh, announced he was beginning experimental testing of a vaccine he hoped would finally make polio a rare disease.

Salk had been experimenting for 15 years, his research partially funded by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, better known as the March of Dimes.

Soon after the national inoculation plan announcement in the spring of 1954, the entire plan shut down for nine months. Inoculated children were coming down with polio and some had died.

Salk was sure he had found a way to “kill” live polio virus and use it in a vaccine that created antibodies in the blood, giving the patient immunity from the disease. The question was what had suddenly gone wrong?

Researchers discovered that the nearly 200 children who came down with polio, and the 10 children who had died, had all received vaccine produced by the Cutter Labs in California. The company’s vaccine accidentally was tainted with a strain of live virus.

Cutter’s vaccines were withdrawn and all other labs were carefully checked. In the spring of 1955, the national inoculation program began again. Jackson County started in late May.

The early enthusiasm for the vaccine by parents would take many months to recover. The number of inoculations in children during the first round of shots was “disappointedly low.” Even a year later, fewer than 50 percent of those eligible were vaccinated.

“The Salk vaccine for my children came too late for me,” Medford’s Bruce Sexton said in 1959. “I contracted polio in 1935. However, it is a plain fact that through the March of Dimes of the past years, the dreaded polio has almost been defeated.”

Two years later, the polio battle received a new weapon — a sugar cube spiced with a no-needle drop of the Sabin vaccine. Polio didn’t have a chance.

Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.