WINSTON COUNTY - So it shall be as it was? Over the previous months, Winston County has been labeled as a county with some of the fewest COVID-19 vaccinations in the state. As of last Thursday, only 34.5 percent of the eligible population had received at least one dose of the vaccine.
This statement echoes the same sentiment as the polio vaccine did in the 1950s. Dr. D.G. Hill of the state health department wrote in 1957, that only 25 percent of Winston County’s population that was under the age of 20 and expectant mothers received polio inoculations, a group consisting of 9,268 individuals.
“Your county is at the bottom on the list with regard to percentage of persons immunized,” Gill said. “It must be a severe shock to parents of children who were stricken with paralytic polio to realize that effective prevention of this crippling disease has been available for two years. They must live with the knowledge that they neglected to give them and you enough information that would have spared each much suffering.”
“This very bad record can be blamed, some health officials say, on the attitude of some parents who do not seem to know, or care, about the value of their children taking these free polio shots,” it was reported in January, 1957.
Poliomyelitis has been around for centuries. Even though there were two epidemics of polio in the 1910s, cases became widespread in the early 1940s in the United States and continued at an astronomical growth pattern until the vaccine was created in 1955.
Commonly known as polio, the virus attacks the muscles of its victims, leaving many paralyzed. Death occurs if or when patients are no longer able to breathe on their own. This is where iron lungs came in, which are devices used as a vacuum with negative pressure to simulate breathing for a patient.
The virus attacked children mainly, though some adults were paralyzed.
Marion County Schools were delayed opening by two weeks in 1941 by an epidemic of polio. One week before school began, Marion had 18 cases, Walker County had 81 and Winston County had one case in the Macedonia community, a second one being added in the same area two weeks later. The state reported 709 cases from Jan. 1 - Sept. 25, 1941, reaching 871 by year’s end.
The country was devastated in 1952 with the most cases ever reported at 57,879 cases, though Alabama only reported 297.
Once the vaccine was given to the general public, there was a sharp decrease in new cases. Due to the vaccine, polio was eradicated in the United States in 1979. The vaccine is still given to infants today.
Similar to the COVID-19 vaccine, the polio vaccine was staggered into multiple doses when the vaccine became available. The second dose was given one week after the first and the third dose one month after the second. They were given for free at “clinics” set up in the county. In 1960, a fourth shot was introduced. It was not until 1961 when Albert Sabin’s oral vaccine was introduced, with vaccine drops on sugar cubes.
If the revered Dr. Malcolm Blake was alive for today’s pandemic, he would very likely be an advocate for the COVID-19 vaccine, based on his documented recommendations for persons to get vaccinated in the past. In 1955, when the polio vaccine was released, Blake was Winston County’s health officer. On the cusp of the polio vaccine rollout, with its true effectiveness unknown at the time, he implored the citizens of the county to get vaccinated.
“We do not know yet whether it really prevents paralytic polio,” Blake wrote at the end of March, 1955. “Until April, when we learn the results of the evaluation study now being conducted at the University of Michigan, we cannot know if the vaccine is effective. But we cannot wait until then for planning for the protection of as many of our children as possible. Vaccinating large numbers of children is a big and important job, entailing many procedural tasks that can’t be performed overnight. If the license is granted in April, we must be ready to start vaccinating at once…” Continuing, he said, “It is a completely voluntary program.
“Only by being prepared for good news can we take immediate advantage of it in time to protect a large number of children this year,” Blake said two weeks later. “Time is of the essence.”
The evaluation study Blake mentioned was a field test of 1.3 million shots. No one developed polio or died from these shots.
Forms were sent home with students for their parents to sign. When the study was complete on Jonas Salk’s vaccine on April 12, 1955, clinics were set up at schools throughout the county beginning April 18, 1955, where kids received their first shot. The first week, 496 students out of an eligible 861, received the vaccine in the county. At the time, there were 17 schools in the county, with Map School near Addison inoculating all of their students, a total of 19.
The second shot was scheduled for mid-May, but after some of those receiving the vaccine were diagnosed with polio, the second shot was postponed. The vaccine was a killed or inactivated strain of the polio virus. However, due to the process of inactivating the polio virus in the vaccine being defective, some shots were released with live virus in five western and midwestern states, killing 10 children and causing 40,000 cases of polio, according to an article in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. This is known as the the Cutter Incident after the lab where the defect occurred. Once the problem was found, vaccinations continued in mid-June.
According to the Centers For Disease Control, COVID-19 vaccines made by Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson only carry messenger RNA instead of the virus itself, unlike polio.
“None of the vaccines authorized for use in the U.S. contain a live virus,” the CDC reports.
This newspaper reported in July 1956, “Over 30 million children in the United States alone have been inoculated without mishap since May 7, 1955…the vaccine is at least 75 percent effective in preventing paralytic poliomyelitis.” For 1956, only 44.5 percent of Winston County’s eligible children, from age zero to 19 took the shots.
A surge of polio in northwestern Alabama during the summer of 1963, which was declared an epidemic, resulted in a high number of people receiving vaccinations, with nearly 1,000 vaccines given in just one day in August. The vaccine had to be packed in dry ice and flown from Philadelphia to Birmingham, where an Alabama National Guard plane brought it to Winston County on one of the hot August days. Dr. Robert Blake, president of the Winston County Medical Society, reported he was behind the program to get 100 percent of the people vaccinated.
On one particular day in August 1963, 23 clinics were set up over Marion, Lawrence and Winston counties, with 34,095 people vaccinated. The medical professionals expected 80,000.
As with the COVID-19 vaccine, there were multiple manufacturers making the polio vaccine.
“We used the Lilly vaccine in those first shots,” Mrs. J.R. Easter, Marion County nurse, said, also stating 1,006 shots were given in April in that county with none having an adverse reaction. Only 365 showed up in the first week of the second round of shots in Marion. It was advertised all three shots must be received at the allotted times to receive the strongest possibly immunity. If any missed the second round, it would be another seven months before any more vaccinations were released.
Eli Lilly was one of five manufacturers of the Salk vaccine. The others were Parke-Davis, Wyeth, Pitman-Moore and Cutter Laboratories.
Historian William O’Neill described April 12, 1955, like this: “People observed moments of silence, rang bells, honked horns, blew factory whistles, fired salutes, kept their red lights red in brief periods of tribute, took the rest of the day off, closed their schools or convoked fervid assemblies therein, drank toasts, hugged children, attended church, smiled at strangers and forgave enemies.”
Many were happy the vaccine was invented while some refused to take it. This is similar to today, though science says the COVID-19 vaccine is safer than the polio vaccine. Yet, the polio vaccines, both Salk and Sabin, helped eradicate a vile plague upon this nation in just over 20 years.
See complete story in the Northwest Alabamian.