clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

`POLIO PIONEERS' BEGAN QUEST TO CONQUER ILLNESS 40 YEARS AGO

Forty years ago, more than 1.8 million American children lined up for the prick in the arm that changed history.

It was the start of the biggest medical experiment ever, the national field test of the vaccine that defeated polio.In April 1954, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis began vaccinating the 1.8 million schoolchildren with a polio vaccine developed by Dr. Jonas Salk. Delivered by syringe, the Salk vaccine - plus an oral compound later concocted by Dr. Albert B. Sabin - eventually all but eliminated polio.

Polio, also called infantile paralysis because it struck mostly children, was one of mankind's ancient curses. It had been killing and crippling hundreds of thousands of people around the world. In this country, terrible seasonal epidemics grew worse every decade.

In the early 1950s, polio would strike more than 50,000 people during a single peak epidemic year. Thousands of children were paralyzed. Many died. Many more were unable to breathe without an iron lung.

In 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, himself a polio victim, established the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, whose sole goal was to care for polio victims and help overcome the disease. Children participated in the annual March of Dimes to collect money for polio research.

Ted Jacobsen was 7 in 1937 when he was struck by polio. The disease progressed swiftly.

"Played ball in the morning and went into the hospital 12 hours later," recalled Jacobsen, who has retired as manager of the University of Utah Special Events Center. He remembers feeling terribly hot.

"They called it deep fever," he said. "People would go up to 104, 5, 6 (degrees) and they just didn't have any antibiotics to bring the fever out. So they used cold compresses."

Some strains of polio caused paralysis in the limbs while other strains affected breathing, he said. Jacobsen had both afflictions.

Taken to the old Salt Lake County Hospital at 2100 South and State, he was lucky. "I was fortunate enough to have an iron lung available because an older person had died the night before."

He used the breathing aid for three weeks. His lungs slowly recovered. His parents tried to massage his limbs back to life. So did a masseuse who visited his home three times a week and even accompanied the family on trips.

"The right side of my body was pretty well OK. Left side never responded very well and needed a lot of surgical repair later in my life . . .

"I always had a limp and I had a curvature of the spine," he said. But he considers himself "basically pretty lucky."

Nobody knew what caused polio or how it was spread.

In Price, Myra Bartley was a physical therapist who worked with polio victims during the 1950s. Her daughter, Linda Bartley Wilcox, now a resident of Plano, Texas, recalled, "She would come home and she'd go into the bathroom and change her clothes and take a shower and put on clean clothes.

"And then you could come up to her. But not 'til then. I had to keep my distance until she changed."

Because polio might be spread by contamination in water, the Bartleys always boiled their water. "That was all we could drink - boiled water. We had big jars of it in the refrigerator."

Dick Leavitt, director of science information for the March of Dimes at the group's headquarters in White Plains, N.Y., said that during polio season - especially August and September - people took all kinds of precautions.

"Swimming pools were widely closed and a lot of movie theaters and other places where people congregated were closed," Leavitt said.

Salk developed a vaccine made from inactivated polio virus. The preliminary tests looked promising, so the foundation decided to sponsor national trials.

"It was a three-part, or trivalent, vaccine," Leavitt said. "In order to immunize a person against the hundred-odd strains of polio virus that exist, you had to have one from each of three main groups."

Field trials were carried out early in 1954. Altogether, 1.8 million children in first, second and third grade were given a series of three shots. Typically the vaccinations were spaced a month apart.

In Utah, 20,000 children were given the shots. As the Deseret News reported a year later, "Half of them got three injections of ruby-red vaccine. The other half got three injections of ruby-colored water. No one knew who got which, but none of the children suffered any reaction."

Leavitt said the tests' planners "needed some large trials to see how many in the vaccine group, if any, and how many in the placebo group actually came down with polio in the '54 polio season."

Steven L. Paxton, now a dentist in West Valley City, was injected with the real vaccine at Plymouth Elementary School in the Tay-lors-ville area. "I just remember having to be herded into a room with a bunch of other kids and receiving the shots.

"If I remember right, it was kind of a traumatic thing." Some kids would pass out, some would cry.

"They prepared us for it by telling us it was an experiment that was being done to see if it would work to prevent polio."

Mark Losee, who attended Lincoln Elementary in Salt Lake City, felt envious years later when the Sabin vaccine came out and children were able to take sugar cubes instead of getting shots.

He recalled that in early 1954, for the first trials, "seems like we went into the school gym or something like that.

"I was in the half that actually got the vaccine, which made me happy because the others had to go back and get the vaccine."

Craig Cook, an attorney in Salt Lake City, was attending Garfield Elementary when he had the shots. He remembers the fear of polio, something like the fear of AIDS today.

"Of course, I was only five or six, but I remember everybody was afraid they'd get it, because they'd have crutches and wheelchairs."

Tony Wilcox, now a resident of Plano, Texas, who was injected at Salt Lake City's Garfield Elementary, remembered seeing children at school who had been paralyzed by polio.

"I remember certainly not wanting to end up like that, in a wheelchair. We got the shots, and I was hoping I got the real thing."

Wilcox had the actual vaccine. But when the Deseret News published the list of "polio pioneers" the next year, it turned out that his sister, Cory, got the placebo.

Cook recalled, "I remember the nurses came and they lined us up and we stood in the hallway. We just went into the room (to get the shots).

"I think I was fairly a veteran of shots because I'd almost died before from a swollen gland . . . I was not afraid because I was conditioned from all of these miserable shots."

Leavitt said that when the vaccine was licensed for distribution in 1955, "the placebo group were the first people to get the real thing."

Constance Lundberg, now the associate dean of the law school at Brigham Young University, Provo, was vaccinated at Garfield Elementary.

"They came in and explained to us what we were doing and the fact that this was a contribution and that if this worked and everything went well, it would save lives and help lots of people," she said.

"I was really excited. I felt I was doing something really important." She was proud of being a "polio pioneer."

On April 12, 1955, results of the previous year's national trials were announced. Altogether, 1,829,916 children were given shots; 460,000 of them were vaccinated.

Of those who got the vaccine, 71 children contracted paralytic polio. Of those who got the placebo, 445 came down with the disease. (Others got non-paralytic polio.) The American Medical Association said the tests showed the vaccine was 80 percent to 90 percent effective. It called the test "one of the greatest events in the history of medicine."

According to Leavitt, once the trials proved that the vaccine was safe, potent and effective, health officials "really shifted into high gear" and delivered a huge amount of vaccine to the country.

Utah and Massachusetts led the nation in vaccinations. Three-quarters of Utahns had shots in mass public clinics sponsored by PTAs, church groups, civic clubs and business.

The Deseret News launched a "Lick Polio" campaign that gained national recognition. In 1957, in Salt Lake City alone, 127 clinics were conducted in LDS wards and stakes.

"Within six years, the rate of epidemic polio was down by 90 percent," Leavitt said.

Like many who were in the field trials, Lundberg was thrilled by the results.

"At the time that it happened, I was really excited and really proud," she said. Years later, she told children and grandchildren about being a "polio pioneer."