When the US Food and Drug Administration approved the use of COVID-19 vaccines in Pfizer and Moderna in December last year — a year after the first coronavirus in Wuhan, China — it was dramatic news after one of the worst years the country has ever seen.
Consider the thrill of Dr. Jonas Salk’s new polio vaccine, officially declared “safe, reliable and strong,” in April 1955. This occurred 60 years after the first recorded polio outbreak in the U.S. in rural Rutland County, Vermont, in 1894. It killed 18 children, mostly under 12 years of age, and left 123 permanently paralyzed.
Polio became a lasting mysterious plague from there. It reached New York in 1916 and killed 2,343 of a total of 6,000 people around the country that year. In the 1940s and early 1950s, there were 8 times more occurrences in the United States, hitting 37 per 100,000 inhabitants by 1952. It was only frightening that children were more vulnerable to the disease.
Schools were the only logical way to attract so many children. Which resulted in an unparalleled national effort on public education infrastructure.
Only after the largest clinical trial in history was the Salk vaccine approved. Instead of being a government initiative, this test was supervised and paid for by a non-profit organization established in 1938 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt: the national childhood paralysis foundation, better known as the March of Dimes. (Roosevelt himself, at the unusually elderly age of 39, contracted polio.) More than 1 3 million children were involved; some had either a three-week vaccine or a placebo, while others were monitored for polio.
School boards, directors, teachers, school nurses, and even PTAs joined the cause in the spring of 1954 along with volunteers including the mothers of the school.
Schools have of course played an important role in the US health system for a long time, including the administration of vaccines for conditions such as smallpox and diphtheria. But nothing prepared them for the polio experiment, which did not include an already proven vaccine that is safe and reliable but still validated. The writer of Polio: An American Story, David M. Oshinsky quoted Melvin Glasser from the March of the Dimes as saying that the organization decided that the undertaking needed 14,000 directors and 50,000 teachers to cooperate.
This highly organized enterprise was a very fruitful and crucial move in the war on polio. Today, news that Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine has shown 100% effective for children from 12 to 15, and confirmation that a significant minority of parents are still reluctant to approve vaccines for their children is worth reviewing what happened 67 years ago.
SYSTEMS GETTING SCHOOL ON BOARD
Step one was to secure the consent of local authorities who supervised schools in the March of Dimes and those who were active in the launching of a polio vaccine trial. These educators appeared to regard engagement as both an expression of patriotism and a medical experiment. For example, in promising its support Lincoln, Nebraska’s Education Board, and the school administration called the trial “a rare educational opportunity” and announced that the trial would “bring our kids to a more comprehensive understanding of the country and its sense of personal pride and achievement. It can be a very real factor in the creation of good citizenship in this regard.”
The school board in Akron, Ohio, voted 6-0 to proceed. The Akron Beacon Journal claimed that only one member of the board, Willard Seiberling, was warned — and this was because those students had a placebo: “Why can’t all young people get the reality rather than half getting saltwater worthless?”
The next task—to ensure approval from parents to take part in the trial for their children—was equally necessary and much more expensive. Existing educational facilities were also important here. Local PTAs held meetings in which school children and other medical professionals informed parents, sometimes via movies or film strips, of the vaccination and testing process.
Together with these official materials and meetings, newspapers were full of what we would now call FAQs. How many shots would a child receive? Have there not been medical experts who said this vaccine is not ready to be tested? Should parents have their children screened for polio immunity before they can volunteer? In reply to these questions, the aim was to eliminate fears and misconceptions which might hinder the trial.
When April came, schools sent home consent forms for parents to sign. They didn’t have a lot of time to think about it. In Pittsburgh, the form was distributed on a Monday and returned for two nights’ consideration by the following Wednesday. As Oshinsky says, the form had parents ‘demand’ their children not to ‘offer permission’ to participate – a meaningful word choice that would sound like an honour to be pursued.
Despite the joy that an end to polio could be imminent, the country was jittery. And Walter Winchell sent some people into complete hysteria on April 4th. The popular radio columnist and television presenter challenged the safety of the trial on his Sunday night radio show saying the vaccine killed monkeys in experiments and “might be a murderer.’
Much when schools distributed consent forms, Winchell also spoke and spoke to several parents. As a result, it has been estimated that 150,000 children have left the trial. Health professionals immediately advocated vaccine safety; Jonas Salk accused Winchell himself of playing the role of “armchair scientist and benchman.” A week after the broadcast of Winchell, Utah’s Ogden Standard-Examiner announced that most of the parents who withdrew permission then restored the pushback.
THE TRIAL PEOPLE
Even without Winchell’s last-minute disturbance, it would have been only marginally successful to persuade parents to sign the consent document. An American Journal of Public Health study on the trial examined mothers whose children enrolled in a single Virginia county in five colleges. Of the 175 mothers surveyed, 42 percent refused to allow their children to take part in the trial. More than 80% of those who rejected said they had concerns about the efficacy of the vaccine.
However, the trial continued. On 26 April 1954, a significant moment in the history of health took place at the Franklin Sherman Elementary School in McLean, Virginia, when six-year old Randall Kerr became the first child to be vaccinated in this trial with Salk’s vaccine — not because of the events, his second grade teacher stressed, but because he wanted to be at the forefront of the trial. Randall expressed fear that somehow his poison ivy could be returned by the vaccine. But once he put the needle in his arm, Dr. Richard Mulvaney said it was less hurt than its shot of penicillin. He was awarded a lollipop, and that was it.
A image of the event appeared on the front pages of journals throughout the world. In the following weeks, the pictures of other school children continued to appear: Mark Knudsen of Salt Lake City, Gerry Midkiff of Oklahoma City, Nancy McIntire from Kansas City, Missouri, Roclester New York’s Gary Caudle and Sandra Smith and several others.
Often these students were calmly portrayed in school with shots. After they had passed the entire trial process, the “Polio Pioneer” pins and certificates were always seen, smiling and brandishing and making their position official in the trial. Many of them will never forget this accomplishment.
By the end of the school year, the vaccine or placebo injection procedure for students was completed and the results analysed. This was a painstaking method and Thomas Francis from Michigan University, the doctor who oversaw the prosecution, wasn’t running his work quickly.
THE VACCINE OF THE TOP OF THE NEWS — and WHALE IS TRAGIC ONE.
As local health workers waited for the results, they started making provisional preparations for a major vaccination program, focusing once again on school systems as the main means of distribution. As one local journal said, “When [the vaccine] is approved by the Govt – and national health authorities seem confident, all first and second-grade students in the U.S., Alaska, and Hawaii will be given three shots at once.”
Francis told the world on 12 April 1955 that the trial was a success. The news was met with enthusiasm, joy, and relief – and schools all over the world, including those in areas that did not participate in the trial, had to work. The Morning Call of Allentown Pennsylvania, for example, announced that 92% of first and first-grade local inoculators had been registered for free, which started on April 27.
The vaccine remained at the top of the news — and it was tragic. When children were vaccinated in schools, doctors found that some of the people who had their vaccines got polio anyway, and then spread it to family members and neighbors. Following these cases of vaccines developed by Cutter Laboratories, Berkeley, California, an investigation found that doses containing dangerous living viruses had been mistakenly released. There were tens of thousands sickened, 200 paralyzed, and 10 dead. Most were school students. School children.
The so-called “cutter incident” stopped the program and rattled the trust of parents momentarily. But then it began again, restored public confidence, and continued. Over the next few years, the cases of polio were reduced significantly thanks to the Salk vaccine, which fell to less than 100 in 1960.
After decades of polio stories resulting in the creation, testing and distribution of the Salk vaccine, the disease largely left headlines. Instead, it appeared mostly in short articles, such as this 1958 ad in a Minnesota paper:
The school year’s last Salk polio vaccine will be on Wednesday in St. Joseph’s school. It’s time 9 a.m.
School children and children in pre-school who require first, second, or third shots are welcomed. Any young person who had his second inoculation of polio seven months ago will now obtain his third and final injection,
Children from St. John the Baptist school were also invited to this clinic. A local doctor will give the shot.
Polio was not a big news issue anymore, it was a victory for humanity. The trial played an enormous role in this. Students who participated may have received the Polio Pioneer pins but heroes around the entire U.S. educational system have done everything possible—and they should remember and cherish their strong elevation.
Similarly, the latest rollout of COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson is a milestone of the medical sciences. Contrary to polio, COVID-19 spared most of the infants, so the trials were initially not prioritized. But now that the Pfizer vaccine has proved incredibly efficient for older children, and with Dr. Fauci promising that younger children would be entitled early next Jahr, millions of children will once again take shots—a moment that made such a difference in the 1950s.