This year is not the first time Haywood County citizens have faced decisions about trying a new vaccine. Sixty-five years ago, another vaccine, also the product of a race to completion, promised hope in a battle against a terrifying disease — one that, like COVID, would be mild for many, while killing and crippling others.
The disease was polio. Like COVID, it could be capricious in its victims, killing some while others didn’t even know they had it. Unlike COVID, polio hit children especially hard; COVID has claimed child victims but, overall, children survive it better than adults. And like COVID, the polio vaccine was not administered without some hitches, some scares and some strong skeptics.
Polio is a viral illness, which can be transmitted through direct contact with an infected person, or through contaminated food and water, which is why pools and swimming areas were frequently shut down during polio scares. Thanks to vaccination programs, polio is now considered eradicated in all parts of the world except Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Like COVID, many who contracted polio in the days when it was rampant never knew they had it. A 1949 study found that four out of five people over age 15 were found to carry polio antibodies. One Haywood County doctor told The Mountaineer in 1955 that most people probably had contracted polio, but many had not realized it because for so many the symptoms were mild or nonexistent. The fact that people could carry polio without knowing it likely contributed to the disease’s reputation for sudden outbreaks that were hard to trace back to a source.
But among those hit with polio were victims who suffered terribly. The virus attacked the nervous system, including muscles needed for breathing. It left many victims paralyzed, and many died.
The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (later known as the March of Dimes) was organized to battle polio, funded research by Dr. Jonas Salk, who developed the first polio vaccine, using the polio virus killed by exposure to formaldehyde. Salk was in a deeply competitive race against Dr. Albert Sabin, whose vaccine would become available in 1961 and which used live polio virus that had been weakened.
In time, Sabin’s vaccine would be the most popular because it could be taken by mouth, via sugar cube, rather than as a series of injections, and because it was cheaper to produce.
But Salk was first, and his vaccine was greeted with tremendous enthusiasm. Rubye Bryson, who was the Haywood County Health Department nurse when the polio vaccine was developed, remembered it as a miracle.
It was so welcome that Haywood County distributed vaccination permission slips to schoolchildren before the field trial results were made public. County health leaders wanted to be ready to administer the vaccine as soon as those results were available, provided they were positive, Bryson recalled in a 2000 interview.
Haywood County students went home with vaccine permission slips in March, and when the results of the field trials came out in April, indicating the vaccine was 90% effective in preventing the virus, Haywood County began vaccinations that same month. The Salk vaccine involved a series of three shots.
The March of Dimes and the National Polio Foundation had raised enough money to fund the first two shots for 9 million children, with the third injection offered at a low cost.
Within that first month of vaccination, 1,669 schoolchildren out of 2,500 had received the first two shots. Parents had returned 42 forms with specific instructions not to administer the vaccines to their children. Six hundred forms were not returned at all.
The first injections were underway when the nation faced a major scare. A run of vaccines from Cutter Lab of California contained live strains of polio that had not been weakened. Those injections actually administered polio, which was then spread by person to person contact. Eleven people died. The Cutter Lab vaccines were withdrawn, but the nation had received a serious scare. The New York Times reported that the “wave of exuberance” with introduction of the Salk vaccine had given way to “confusion, conflict and doubt.”
Though Haywood County was using vaccines manufactured by Eli Lily, people either became afraid of all polio vaccines, or did not know they came from a different source. In Saunook for example, 325 students were scheduled to receive the shots. Only nine showed up at the clinic. Some of the absences, Bryson recalled, were caused by the fact that measles, mumps and chicken pox also were running through the school system at that time. Bryson spent much of her time that month on the telephone, reassuring parents and rescheduling missed vaccination appointments.
Despite the tragedy of the Cutter Lab vaccines, the immunization effort did its work. In 1955, the nation reported 30,000 polio cases. (Remember, at that time, the nation was not testing and noting those cases with mild or few symptoms.) In 1962, that number had dropped to 1,000 nationwide. The last known naturally occurring case of polio in the United States was recorded in 1979.
(Sources for this story include multiple Mountaineer editions from 1947 through 1955, and in particular two articles, “Disease takes its toll on county,” by Peggy Gosselin, The Enterprise Mountaineer, Dec. 27, 1999, and “Terror of Polio Remembered” by N. Kathy Ross, The Enterprise Mountaineer, Dec. 22, 2000.)