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Q. I remember going to get sugar cubes for the polio vaccination when I was a child. Can you tell me more about the polio epidemic?
A. The oral polio vaccine (OPV) was given in drinks or on sugar cubes and was developed in 1961. OPV was recommended for use in the United States for almost 40 years, from 1963 until 2000. (Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia) The first epidemic of polio in the United States was 1894 in Rutland County, Vermont. Eighteen deaths and 132 cases of permanent paralysis were reported. The disease struck periodically in the United States, and the next major outbreak was in New York City in 1916 with more than 2,000 people dying. The earliest notice I could find in the lLibrary’s digitized collection of the “San Marcos Record” was in February 1938. On page one was a headline that read, “Funds Roll in to Fight Polio: Committee will continue to take donations.” Fund drives were highly featured in the media of the day. The March of Dimes was born in 1938 when entertainer Eddie Cantor suggested on the radio that people send dimes to President Roosevelt at the White House to help fight polio. Within a few weeks, people had mailed 2,680,000 dimes to the President. Other celebrities and then grassroots organizers joined in the campaign. Over the years, this “March of Dimes” raised tens of millions of dollars, much of which went to the effort to find a vaccine. (College of Physicians of Philadelphia) On page one of the Feb. 21, 1941 San Marcos Record, it was reported that “$79.65 Realized in polio drive.” Half of the amount was sent to the National Committee for Infantile Paralysis in Warm Springs Georgia and half of it was used locally to fight infantile paralysis. In 1949, reporting on illness and deaths increased greatly. For example, on March 25, 1949 the “San Marcos Record” had three separate alone articles about polio and its victims.
Initially, polio was thought to be transmitted through the nasal system, then on to the nervous system. However, in 1941, Albert Sabin and Robert Ward, MD, showed that it was very rare to find poliovirus in nasal tissues. Moreover, poliovirus was present not only in the nervous system but also in the digestive system. This meant that the virus entered the body through the mouth, passed into the digestive system and was then distributed by the blood to the nervous system. Poliovirus enters the body through the mouth, in water or food that has been contaminated with fecal material from an infected person. The virus multiplies in the intestine and is excreted by the infected person in feces, which can pass on the virus to others. (World Health Organizations) This finding gave hope that a vaccine could be developed that would produce antibodies to fight the virus in the bloodstream before it reached the nervous system. (College of Physicians of Philadelphia) In May of 1953, Jonas Salk injected himself and his family with his experimental poliovirus vaccine and, as a result, a massive polio vaccine trial began in the United States. However, it was not until April of 1955 when the results of the vaccine trials were announced. The vaccine, they said, was 80-90% effective and the U.S. government licensed it the very same day. In 1960, Albert Sabin’s oral vaccine, the same one that many children remember receiving on sugar cubes, was licensed.
Wild poliovirus was declared eliminated from the Americas in September 1994, making the Americas the first World Health Or- ganization region to meet the goal of polio elimination. However, there are recent developments. In July, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) was notified of a case of polio in an unvaccinated individual from Rockland County, N.Y., and is currently consulting with the New York State Department o Health on their investigation. Public Health experts are working to understand how and where the individual was infected and to provide protective measures, such as vaccination services to the community to prevent the spread of polio to others. This does not change CDC recommendations for vaccination. CDC urges everyone who is not fully vaccinated to complete the polio vaccination series as soon as possible. (CDC)
• Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, Aug. 11). “Polio vaccination: What everyone should know.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved Aug. 23 cdc. gov/vaccines/vpd/polio/ public/index.html
• The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. (2014, Aug. 21). “Polio vaccine.” Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Retrieved Aug. 23 from chop.edu/ centers-programs/vaccine- education-center/ vaccine-details/polio-vaccine
• College of Physicians of Philadelphia: Mutter Museum. (n.d.). “Polio. History of Vaccines RSS.” Retrieved Aug. 23 from historyofvaccines. org/history/polio/timeline • World Health Organization. (n.d.). “FAQ: Polio Eradication. Polio Global Eradication Initiative.” Retrieved Aug. 23 from polioeradication. org/polio-today/ faq/
Suzanne Sanders is the columnist for the library. She is the Community Services Manager for the San Marcos Public Library and came from the Austin Public Library in 2015 after having served there as a librarian for over 20 years. She gratefully accepts your questions for this column.