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A look back at mass polio vaccinations of ‘50s, ‘60s

The development of the COVID-19 vaccine has caused us to look back to the Spanish Flu of 1918. But a more recent medical condition led to the development of another vaccine to address another illness, the polio vaccine of the 1950s.

Anyone older than the age of 60 probably remembers the various polio vaccines administered between 1955 and 1963.

Actually called poliomyelitis, the term was shortened to polio. The disease was shown in carvings found by archaeologists centuries ago, but was first documented in the late 1700s for its disabling and potentially fatal illness that disfigured limbs of the human body.

By the 1890s, research had been done to identify polio and determine drugs that could address the disease. Awareness of the disease came to the forefront in 1933 with the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt as president, who had been stricken with the virus and confined to a wheelchair, despite his efforts to serve in the office and have people ignore his disability.

In 1938, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis was formed to fund efforts to eradicate polio and supported work at the University of Pittsburgh. Researchers and a team of physicians worked on a killed virus which Dr. Jonas Salk and his team felt would be safer than the live culture that was being used by other researchers.

Polio was better known to cripple children, as stated in the W.H. Warner Coal Co. newsletter of July 1948, which operated several mines in Jefferson County.

“Infantile paralysis attacks few people and many recover without crippling. Summer is the chief danger period. Practice cleanliness, avoid new contacts, avoid chilling, don’t swim in polluted waters and get your doctor’s advice.”

By 1950, polio was an epidemic and nearly every mother in the nation was concerned that her child would become ill with the virus. Success was found in the Salk vaccine and it was approved for use on April 14, 1955, and on April 28 the first 1,399 first- and second-graders in the Steubenville School System and Holy Name Schools were given the “first shot” in what was termed “Operation Lollipop.” The vaccine arrived from the Ohio Department of Health for all Steubenville school students, with Toronto and Mingo Junction to follow.

The Salk vaccine was administered in three injections and was aimed at children under the age of 18 as they were the testing group of nearly 500,000 who tested the vaccine. Vaccinations locally were managed by the city and Jefferson County health departments through schools.

A setback took place later in 1955 when the Cutter Laboratory in California had created a batch of vaccine that was found to be defective and vaccinations were stopped until the source of the problem was found and resolved.

Once corrected, the administration of the Salk vaccination continued in schools and through local doctor’s offices. A report issued in 1957 by the Ohio Department of Health states that “Steubenville’s polio immunizations program has received wide-spread praise, recognized as one of the best not only in Ohio but nationwide.”

Their records show that 50,000 ccs of the vaccine had been distributed to the estimated 27,039 students in Jefferson County schools since 1955. Special note was made to city Health Commissioner Julius A. Pizzoferrato and Dr. Robert W. Schilling, the county health commissioner. The free distribution of the Salk vaccine would be ending in June 1957 and the departments recommended that anyone under the age of 40 take advantage of program of vaccinations taking place every Friday and Saturday before it was closed down.

It was a different story in June 1959 when both commissioners issued a statement noting the “Area’s apathy toward polio shots held shame,” and sounded the alarm that many parents weren’t completing the three-shot inoculation, and some in the 1957-59 time-period had ignored the vaccine altogether. causing cases to rise. Those missing the shots were urged to get a “fourth shot,” or a booster shot, and urged adults up to age 40 to get the shot if “they are in close proximity to children” as the disease was passing forward from children to adults.

Our area was not unique in the lack of vaccinations by 1960, and there was concern that the Salk vaccination had perhaps a limited time period for coverage, and problems with the Cutter Laboratory in 1955 had scared some away from getting the vaccine.

Another researcher, Dr. Albert B. Sabin, had been working on a different vaccine which used a live virus. Testing took place outside the United States, and the Sabin vaccine was approved for testing use in the U.S. in 1961. Early testing saw four cases of paralytic polio develop in 4 million tests in Canada. Sabin recommended to continue the vaccine, stating, “What happens is that people already infected are given the vaccine and this affords no protection.”

Distribution of the Sabin vaccine continued on Sept. 15, 1962.

The Sabin vaccine was distributed in a larger region which included Jefferson, Harrison and Belmont counties in Ohio, and Marshall, Ohio, Hancock and Brooke Counties in West Virginia. This time, the first Sabin vaccine would be distributed through a “S.O.S.,” or a “Sabin On Sunday” program aimed at successfully eradicating polio.

The date in our region was Sunday, Dec. 2, 1962, at 35 clinics throughout the seven-county area. Each site would have two physicians, two nurses and at least 16 volunteers on hand for the distribution. Drs. Sanford Press and Jonathan Yobbaggy were chairmen of the Jefferson County drive. The vaccine would be stored in the freezers of the Jefferson County Home on Sunset Boulevard until it was transported to the sites the day of the S.O.S.

The Sabin vaccine was different from the Salk vaccine, as it was based on a “live virus” with three drops placed on a sugar cube which was swallowed by the individual, allowing a larger group to receive the vaccine in a shorter time. The Kroger Co., through its stores in the seven-county region, provided the needed sugar cubes upon which the vaccine was administered. Participants were asked for a 25-cent donation, if possible, for the vaccine.

Throughout November 1962, promotional materials were distributed through the media explaining the Sabin vaccine. The Type I distribution would be administered to anyone 6 weeks or older on a sugar cube, and was recommended to be taken by anyone who had already received the earlier Salk vaccine. Dr. John W. Young, the county health commissioner, issued several newspaper stories, in addition to Press and all the medical societies of the seven counties. Volunteers were assembled by Drs. Earl Rosenblum, Carl Goll and Paul W. Ruksha.

The Wintersville Citizen newspaper reported that nearly 6,000 people took the vaccine at the Wintersville clinic from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on that Sunday, one of the largest clinics attended, with more than 30 volunteers working that day. A second clinic was held a month later, and a third clinic was needed.

A make-up clinic was held for all of Jefferson County on Dec. 8, 1962, at the City Building with another 1,163 taking the vaccine, for a total number of 51,052 having received the Sabin vaccine by the end of 1962 in Jefferson County.

The S.O.S. Clinic for Type 2 of the Sabin vaccine was held Jan. 20, 1963, and more than 50,000 received the second vaccine in Jefferson County. The third S.O.S. Clinic was in March and a similar number received the final vaccine.

Further polio vaccines continued to be administered by local health departments, hospitals and doctor’s offices. Today, polio vaccine is usually administered in the first year, in three to five doses depending on the situation. Polio in the U.S. was largely eliminated by 1979. Efforts by the World Health Organization, Rotary International and other foundations began in 1988 and the Americas was polio-free in 1994. Europe was declared polio-free in 2002, but today cases still are found in some countries of Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

(Hall is the director emeritus and Grubbs works in the local history and genealogy department of the Public Library of Steubenville and Jefferson County.)

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