COVID-19 vaccines are being administered now at the Lenoir County Livestock Arena and at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. Stockyards and stock cars. Ya’ gotta love North Carolina.
Schools were a preferred location for pandemic inoculations when I grew up in the early 1960s. Sixty years ago, in the third grade or thereabouts, I stood in line with my Mom in the hallway of our Royalview Elementary School in Willowick, Ohio.
“Open up nice and big and stick out your tongue sweetie,” I’ll bet the nurse in the white cap and uniform said as she plopped a small sugar cube infused with a polio vaccine onto my tongue. A sugar cube. It was the easiest vaccination I had ever had then and still have had today, far easier than those 10-penny nail-like needle injections I feared so much as a kid.
Beyond Mom’s assurance to me that there would be no shot, I remember that sugar cube … well … because kids love sugar. And I recall a feeling in that elementary school that was almost joyful, a festive occasion beyond just the “no-needle/Sugar-Selebration” atmosphere of the event. It probably was celebratory. We were at the beginning of the end of a scourge that had frightened people for decades.
Mom was relieved to have her kids vaccinated and would have been happy even if she had been forced to hold me down, kicking and screaming, at the prospects of a hypodermic needle-injected vaccine. She was afraid of polio. President Franklin Roosevelt, Mom’s president for much of her childhood and young adult reality, famously contracted it and, even though he tried to hide its devastation to his body, brought attention and action to the need to defeat it. She had friends paralyzed by it. Kids in my school wore polio-induced leg braces.
I was just a know-nothing little kid but polio scared me a little too. I’d seen the cold, metallic, mechanized pictures on the news. It was that Iron Lung that frightened me.
Back then, summer, winter, spring or fall – even in the rain – I was outside playing, climbing trees, running bases, catching crawdads, watching ants, making snow forts, exploring my world. Being medicinally confined on my back inside a clicking, clanking, emotionless, metal coffin was my worst nightmare.
But the polio pandemic was as real then as COVID is now. “Swimming pools and movie theaters,” according to an article in Discover Magazine (Carl Kurlander, April 2, 2020), “closed during polio ‘season’ for fear of this invisible enemy. Parents stopped sending their children to playgrounds or birthday parties for fear they would ‘catch polio.’ Before a vaccine was available, polio caused more than 15,000 cases of paralysis a year in the U.S. It was the most feared disease of the 20th century.”
It took less than a year – a minor miracle at the least – to develop several viable COVID-19 vaccines. It took decades to develop a workable polio vaccine. Again, according to Discover Magazine, “Dr. Jonas Salk was 33 when he began his medical research in a basement lab at the University of Pittsburgh. He started with research on the flu but switched to polio partly because of better federal funding. Three floors above his lab was a polio ward filled to capacity with adults and children in iron lungs to help them breathe.
“There were no guarantees Salk and his team would achieve success. Ten years earlier, a different polio vaccine (being tested) inadvertently gave kids polio, killing nine of them.
“Yet, even with that “set back” (a vastly underwhelming term given the deaths of children test subjects) on April 12, 1955, six years from when Salk began his research, the Salk polio vaccine was declared ‘safe and effective.’ Church bells rang and newspapers across the world claimed ‘Victory Over Polio.’
“More than 400 million doses of the Salk Vaccine were distributed between 1955 and 1962, reducing the cases of polio by 90 percent. By the end of the century, the polio scare had become a faint memory.”
In the Jan, 10, 2012, edition of The Atlantic, Brian Resnick wrote, “At its peak in 1952, more than 21,000 Americans contracted a paralyzing form of polio, and 3,000 died from it. Once infected, there was no treatment besides time and tending to the symptoms,” some of which … my greatest fear … included being confined, immovably, in the Iron Lung.
So, whether the vaccination distribution occurs in school yards or stock yards or regardless of inoculation via sugar cubes or 10-penny needles, I’m grateful I never saw the inside of an Iron Lung. I’m thankful we defeated polio.
And I believe we should also all be indebted to modern science, science that can develop and begin distribution of a COVID-19 vaccination with such rapidity and safety and that we, The People, provide the means to do so. COVID-19’s defeat is coming too.
But perfection is impossible. None of our governments, local, state or federal, are perfect. Just like none of us are perfect. Our founding Fathers ensured that our system could not create a “perfect government.” They knew that to protect our liberties a less perfect government was required and that we should only strive to create a “more perfect” union, not perfect governments.
And, our union is clearly getting more perfect … maybe not as fast as some would prefer in all ways … but certainly it is as far as our vaccine development processes are concerned. That’s a good thing, especially now.
Tideland News columnist Barry Fetzer writes from his home on Queens Creek.