Monday, October 21, 2013

We were Polio Pioneers

“The Biggest Public Health Experiment Ever” was how Statistics: A Guide to the Unknown, edited by Judith Tanner, described the 1954 polio immunizations.  

Since my last post I have been busy reading Polio: An American Story, by David M. Oshinsky. It is a well written and documented history of the disease. It helped me to understand what lead up to the immunizations in spring 1954.  So in a nutshell:

In 1938 Franklin Roosevelt, himself a polio victim, formed the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis with the goal of finding a cure for polio while providing the best possible care for those afflicted.

The National Foundation’s successful annual March of Dimes campaign funded the research that made tremendous strides over the next decade. In the early 1950s the number of polio cases spiked again.  

Surrounded by controversy, Jonas Salk’s vaccine seemed the best option for controlling the new polio outbreak.  With little testing, the vaccine, manufactured by Eli Lilly and Park-Davis, was rushed to market.  The first shot was given in April 1954 and successive immunizations given through the end of the school year. By that time over a million school children across the U.S. received the vaccine or a placebo. 

Tompkins County children were among those chosen to be Polio Pioneers. Some children received the vaccine via shots while others took a liquid form.  Since I remember taking the liquid form in little white paper cups and my husband remembers receiving a shot, I wondered why the different forms?

I then checked with the History Center, the Tompkins County Health Department, the Tompkins County Historian, and the Deputy County Clerk.  None of these sources had, to their knowledge, any record or documentation regarding the 1954 polio vaccinations.   

From reading Prof. Oshinksy’s book, I learned the reason might be because documentation was sent immediately to the Vaccine Evaluation Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan where the results were collected, processed and coded. 

The formal report given one year later on April 12, 1955 was that the vaccine was successful. 

The answer to our question: Why did students at Newfield Central School receive shots while those at the Willow Creek two-room schoolhouse in the Ithaca district receive the oral vaccine - may never be answered.

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