The mass inoculation of millions of American children against Polio in 1955, like the vaccinations of millions of American adults against COVID-19 in 2021, was a triumph of science.
But the Polio vaccine had overwhelming public acceptance, while stubborn pockets of vaccine hesitancy persist across the U.S. for the COVID-19 vaccine. Why the difference? One reason, historians say, is that in 1955, many Americans had an especially deep respect for science.
Today, the unprecedented speed of the COVID-19 vaccines’ development, along with a flood of disinformation on the internet about all vaccines, has led to a lingering hesitancy among some Americans to receive the increasingly available COVID-19 shots.
During the late 1940s and early ‘50s, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Polio disabled an average of 35,000 people a year in the U.S., most of them children. As outbreaks popped up across the country in the hot Summer months, people were terrified and voluntarily isolated. Many parents kept their children close to home and away from community gathering spots like movie theaters, roller rinks and beaches.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had himself essentially lost the use of his legs after a Polio infection in 1921, when he was 39, launched the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, a charitable organization, in the late 1930s. Later renamed the March of Dimes, the foundation took the lead in efforts to fund research at a time when the National Institutes of Health was in its infancy.
“Roosevelt’s passion for finding a solution — a cure, a vaccine — made Polio a priority coming from the very top leader of this country,” says Stewart. “People across the country felt like they were called to duty. It was a call to action, like the war effort.”
An army of volunteers for the March of Dimes, largely mothers, went door to door, distributing the latest information about polio and the effort to stop it; they also asked for donations. As little as a dime would help, they said. And the dimes and dollars poured in, handed to the volunteers, or inserted into cardboard displays at store checkout counters or placed in envelopes sent directly to the White House.
Cases of Polio may have peaked in the U.S. in 1952 with nearly 60,000 children infected. More than 3,000 died. (By comparison, roughly a year’s worth of comparable statistics for the COVID-19 pandemic reveal more than 32 million reported cases in the U.S. so far and more than 573,000 deaths.)
The years-long campaign of information and donations to the Polio eradication effort made anxious Americans feel they were invested in a solution, Stewart says. So confident was the public in the research leading up to the Polio vaccine that by the time the Salk vaccine was ready for experimental testing in 1954, the parents of 600,000 children volunteered their own offspring as research subjects.
When the results of those studies showed the vaccine to be safe and effective in 1955, church bells rang. Loudspeakers in stores, offices and factories blared the news. People crowded around radios. “There was jubilation,” says Stewart. People couldn’t wait to sign their kids up for a shot.
The Polio vaccine effort offers some lessons for today. First, volunteers from local communities are trusted and invaluable in providing education on disease, research and vaccines. To get people’s attention, add to that numerous high-profile advocates — individuals recognized and esteemed by various parts of the population. The March of Dimes recruited Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney and Marilyn Monroe to join the fund raising effort to educate people about Polio and the value of the vaccine. And in 1956, Elvis Presley was vaccinated backstage at The Ed Sullivan Show.
It has now been several months since Sandra Lindsay, a nurse on Long Island, N.Y., became the first person in the U.S. to receive a COVID-19 vaccination. As of Wednesday, August 25 at least 51% of the country’s total residents are now fully vaccinated.
“That’s the low-hanging fruit,” experts say. “After you vaccinate all the people champing at the bit to get it, that’s when you have to think of strong marketing strategies for those who are hesitant.” Less than 43% of Georgia residents are fully vaccinated, ranking us as one of the lowest fully vaccinated sates in the nation.
The strong, consistent message during the Polio years was “We’re all in this together.” The same message, must somehow be made to come across even louder and clearer today.
Portions of this article were authored by Susan Brink, a freelance writer who covers health and medicine.