A Little Bit Of Vaccine History

As we moved closer to being able to get COVID vaccines, I wondered how things went when the Polio vaccine rolled out. Were people scared of it? Did people think it got developed too quickly? Were there all these conspiracy theories?

Then I saw this story about what happened when the Polio vaccine arrived, and learned a few things.

So confident was the public in the research leading up to the polio vaccine that by the time the Salk vaccine was ready for experimental testing in 1954, the parents of 600,000 children volunteered their own offspring as research subjects.
When the results of those studies showed the vaccine to be safe and effective in 1955, church bells rang. Loudspeakers in stores, offices and factories blared the news. People crowded around radios. “There was jubilation,” says Stewart. People couldn’t wait to sign their kids up for a shot.
Then tragedy struck. One of the six labs manufacturing the vaccine, Cutter Laboratories in Berkeley, Calif., made a terrible mistake. The correct list of ingredients for the Salk vaccine called for polio virus that had been inactivated, but in the Cutter facility, the process of killing the virus proved defective. As a result, batches of the company’s vaccine went out that mistakenly contained active polio virus. Of the 200,000 children who received the defective vaccine, 40,000 got polio from it; 200 were left with varying degrees of paralysis, and 10 died.

I had never heard that little nugget. Thankfully, they figured out what happened, fixed the problem, and the vaccine went on doing its thing, and we don’t have to worry about Polio much anymore. But I’m sure that made people scared to sign up for a shot until they figured out what was going on.

It’s weird to think that lots of people alive today weren’t around to remember how it felt to be powerless against the Polio virus. I even asked my mom if she remembered what things were like before the vaccine came along and she said “All I remember is them lining us up in school in rows so we could all get our Polio shots.” And my mom is over 70. If she doesn’t remember, there are lots of people younger who definitely don’t.

When I linked to that story about the iron lung, and read about people being afraid to have their kids gather in public places for fear of catching Polio, I had no idea we were headed back to the same fear for a different reason. Now let’s hope we can successfully smash the COVID threat into the earth with enough people getting the vaccine.

I like this quote right here from medical historian David Oshinsky. “But that also means that people born after the mass vaccination effort don’t have memories of how bad the disease could be. Vaccines have been a job … done so well they have obliterated evidence of what the disease can cause: kids on crutches, in wheelchairs, in iron lungs.”

That’s what we have to remember. All those other viruses we’ve forgotten about are still out there, just waiting for an unvaccinated sucker to come along. The only reason they’re no big deal is because we get vaccinated against them. We want our normal lives back? The evidence seems to indicate that anyone who is able needs to get vaccinated against COVID.

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