Studies have shown that the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines are about 94% effective in preventing the disease and that unvaccinated people are five times more likely to contract COVID and 29 times more likely to be hospitalized for it.
Why then have only a smidge more than 50% of eligible Americans been fully, and 64% partially, vaccinated since these vaccines were first authorized for emergency use nine months ago?
Even more puzzling, why is the COVID vaccination program encountering greater opposition than the Salk polio vaccination campaign of the 1950s?
In the face of sobering data about the risks of declining the vaccine, anti-vaxxers have become increasingly shrill in their criticism of governmental and employer mandates requiring COVID shots as well as other public health measures such as masking and testing. They argue that mandates infringe on personal or religious freedom, that the safety of vaccines is unproven, or that the entire vaccination program is a nefarious plot to implant the secret state’s surveillance microchips in our bodies.
Perhaps anti-vaxxers should imitate Dorothy’s fearful chant in the Wizard of Oz — “Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh my!” — and adopt the slogan, “Vaccines and masks and testing, Oh my!”
I don’t remember such paranoid resistance to the Salk polio vaccine campaign of my youth.
According to the CDC’s website, polio (or poliomyelitis) is a disabling and life-threatening neurological disease caused by the poliovirus. The virus primarily spreads from person-to-person contact through sneezing and coughing. Of those infected, 72% show no visible symptoms, 25% exhibit flu-like symptoms, one in 25 develop meningitis, and one in 200 become paralyzed or very weak in their arms, legs or both.
Polio’s most famous victim was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who, as an adult, lost the use of his legs from it in 1921. But the disease mainly attacks children, with 90% of those paralyzed being under the age of 5 (hence polio’s other name, “infantile paralysis”).
In the early 1950s, tens of thousands in this country and hundreds of thousands worldwide were paralyzed by polio annually. The iron lung — a respirator which encased the body and adjusted air pressure to mechanically assist breathing in patients who had suffered loss of muscle control in their diaphragm was as visible a symbol of polio then as the ventilator has become of COVID-19 today.
I was in primary school when the Salk vaccine was approved. I was (and still am) phobic about needles, but my mother didn’t care. Even if my pediatrician had to chase me around the office to administer the injection, Mom was determined that shot would go into my arm. She wasn’t about to let either of her children be exposed to the risk of this dreaded disease if it could be prevented.
Nor was she alone in her opinion. My recollection is that the vaccination program was widely accepted by the public at the time. However, not wanting to rely on childhood memories, I did a bit of historical research seeking corroboration. Here’s what I found.
Working at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Medicine, researcher Dr. Jonas Salk developed a revolutionary vaccine using viruses which had been killed in the lab by application of formaldehyde. This approach went against the established paradigm of contemporary virologists, who thought the right method was to isolate a live, but weakened, virus and administer it to patients to create a low-grade, harmless infection that would confer long-term immunity.
In 1954, Salk undertook a massive voluntary clinical trial involving 1.8 million children in 44 states from Maine to California. (About 440,000 actually received the vaccine, with the rest serving as a control group who got a placebo or no vaccination). The trial was carried out with the cooperation of lay volunteers, health professionals and health departments throughout the country. The result, which established the vaccine as safe and effective, was announced on April 12, 1955.
Large-scale vaccinations followed Salk’s discovery. I haven’t been able to find statistics on the number of shots administered, but the results speak to a high degree of compliance. The annual number of reported paralytic cases in the U.S. fell from 35,592 with 1,450 deaths in 1953 to 5,485 with 221 deaths in 1957 to 1,312 with 90 deaths in 1961. The data showed an even sharper drop when the numbers of polio cases imported from abroad were excluded.
This is not to say that there were no complications from the vaccine. In 1955, one pharmaceutical company produced a bad vaccine lot, which failed to completely kill the viral ingredient and resulted in the paralysis of 250 children and death of 10. A tainted batch from a second company reportedly paralyzed and killed several children. These incidents did, to some extent, reduce public confidence in the vaccine and led to a drop in vaccination rates.
By and large, however, the Salk vaccine campaign was enormously successful. It was followed in 1961 and largely supplanted by an even more successful one using the Sabin vaccine, which employed a live, attenuated form of the virus that could be administered orally. Thanks to these vaccination programs, polio was entirely eliminated in U.S. by 1979, in the Americas by 1994, in Europe by 2002, and in India by 2014. Only 33 cases were reported worldwide in 2018, with outbreaks limited to Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
So what was different in 1955 versus 2021?
I’d like to think that Americans were more rational back then, but that wasn’t necessarily the case. The 1950s was an era of anti-Communist paranoia and witch hunts and of violent Southern white backlash to the Civil Rights Movement. Nor was there always a clear-headed approach to public health as illustrated by opponents to fluoridation of public water supplies, who vilified it as a Communist plot.
There was, however, greater trust in government, science and public institutions generally, and we were blessedly free from those monumental platforms of 21st century disinformation — the internet and social media.
The result was that American public in the 1950s saw the vaccine for what it was, a beneficial public health measure, indeed a scientific miracle, and parents embraced it to protect their children from the scourge of a debilitating and potentially fatal disease.
Elliott Epstein is a trial lawyer with Andrucki & King in Lewiston. His Rearview Mirror column, which has appeared in the Sun Journal for 15 years, analyzes current events in an historical context. He is also the author of “Lucifer’s Child,” a book about the notorious 1984 child murder of Angela Palmer. He may be contacted at [email protected]