Wednesday, April 6, 2016

And the last shall be first

Next week (on April 12), we "celebrate" the 71st anniversary of the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Of course, among many other things, FDR was characterized by his polio. I'm taking this occasion to write this small reminiscence of my experiences with the polio vaccine.

And his little dog Fala
When I was growing up in the early 1950s summer was a great time for kids except for one thing...the ever present threat of contracting polio. I was too young to really know anything about this, but I imagine the possibility worried my parents. Then, in 1954, the world changed dramatically. The vaccine invented by Jonas Salk and his team at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine made it safe for kids to go swimming in the summer again.

From the point of view of a six or seven year old the vaccine wasn't that great a thing as there was a massive campaign to vaccinate every child in the country. Vaccination ment needles. Needles meant ouchies! Oh, and did I mention that protection required multiple doses spread over time?

At any rate one day at school we were all loaded up on school buses and taken to Highland Park hospital where we again lined up and received our first dose. By the time it was time for the second dose the powers that be decided that the vaccine could be safely administered at our grammer school. Instead of being bused to the hospital we were lined up in the gym.

This pretty much sums things up from a kids point of view
And now I come to the point of this story. My last name begins with "W" and all of my life when things are done in order by name mine is called last or nearly last. Not this day. Someone had the bright idea of having us line up in reverse alphabetical I was among the first to get my injection. The bright side of this is that we didn't have time to get scared watching the others get their shot. We could exaggerate the pain (that's my story and I'm sticking to it) and scare everyone else in the class instead.

More on the vaccine

Although I wasn't aware of it, there were problems with the vaccine in some parts of the country. It seems that at least one manufacturer didn't follow correct procedure to make the polio virus inactive. As a result at least 250 cases of polio were caused by it.

Subsequent to the invention of the Salk vaccine, came the vaccine developed by Albert Sabin that relied in a weakened (but not inactivated) virus. This had the advantage of being administered orally as a single dose as opposed to the three doses the Salk vaccine required. This vaccine also led to herd immunity as the live but weakened virus was spread through the community.

This virus was not without its problems and when my daughter was given her polio vaccinations in the 1990s I discussed (with her pediatrician) the idea of giving her a dose of the Salk vaccine to provide protection against any ill-effects before giving her a dose of the Sabin vaccine. He agreed that this was a reasonable thing to do and I understand it is now common practice. (It may well have been common practice then, but I'm still proud I thought of it!)

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