On Wednesday morning, April 27, 1955, Lima school children lined up to make history, by being among the first people in Allen County to receive a shot of the polio vaccine developed by Dr. Jonas Salk.
“It hurt just a little – but it was worth it for the 370 Lima first and second grade children who walked up and took a .1cc shot of Salk vaccine this morning and walked away again with hardly a tear,” The Lima News wrote in a front-page story, adding that “vaccinated with a serum termed ’90 percent effective,’ these tots no longer will face a future threatened by crippling polio.”
Despite the promise offered by the Salk vaccine, the county vaccination rate soon lagged, with residents apparently put off by the cost of the three-shot regimen — about $12 in 1959 — even though, as the News noted, “Lima and area residents would have to look long and hard to find a better bargain than polio immunization.”
And so, more than four years after school children lined up for the Salk vaccine, the specter of another “polio summer,” though greatly diminished, haunted Allen County. The head of the local polio foundation in June 1959 described Allen County as a polio “soft spot” as summer loomed.
That all changed on Sunday, Jan. 13, 1963, when nearly three quarters of the county’s residents turned out for their first dose of a vaccine developed by Dr. Albert Sabin, of the University of Cincinnati. While both the Salk and Sabin vaccines protected against contracting polio, the Sabin vaccine also kept the vaccinated person from spreading it. And while the Salk vaccine was delivered through a needle, the Sabin vaccine was delivered in a sugar cube, water or, for the very young, through a dropper. In a publicity campaign leading up to that Sunday, even those who had already received the Salk vaccine were encouraged to take the Sabin vaccine.
Dubbed “Sabin Oral Sunday (SOS),” The Lima News declared the mass vaccination “the greatest community health program in Allen County history.”
“It was a cold day, treacherously icy under wheel and foot, but they came – the thousands who know that good health is more valuable than riches,” the Lima Citizen wrote the next day. “They came from the house around the corner, from the neighboring farms, and they ranged in age from the babe in arms to the near-century mark.”
From 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. they came. “As worship hours of many churches concluded, the crowds became thicker, but smiling volunteer nurses, neighbors, physicians and pharmacists and wives of Allen County’s many service club members … were there to assist.”
In the end, 76,431 people – 72.1 percent of the population of Allen County – showed up at 16 county sites manned by some 1,000 volunteers to receive the first of three doses of the Sabin polio vaccine on Sabin Oral Sunday. A make-up day held a week later pushed the total to more than 80 percent. SOS had been a year in the planning and was sponsored by the Allen County Academy of Medicine and the local chapter of the Northwest Ohio Pharmaceutical Association.
It was a day that had been a long time coming.
Although polio (poliomyelitis) had plagued mankind since ancient times, the most extensive outbreak occurred in the first half of the 20th century. Most people associated it with warm weather, and summer came to be dreaded as “polio season.” If not fatal, the disease often left victims paralyzed. By the 1940s, the standard treatment included placing a patient in an iron lung to help them breathe. Young children were the most frequent victims, although its most famous victim was 39-year-old future president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was left without the use of his legs after contracting the disease in 1921.
To help other victims, Roosevelt inspired and directed the March of Dimes campaign to raise money for the fight against the disease.
During a particularly bad outbreak in New York City in 1916, it was estimated a child died every hour from polio. In Lima, an infant was the first casualty, dying five days after contracting the disease in July 1916. Another particularly vicious outbreak in 1952 crippled thousands and left more than 3,000 dead in the U.S. alone.
Hope arrived when the Salk vaccine was approved in 1954 and began going into arms in 1955. Meanwhile, Dr. Sabin was working on an oral vaccine. By 1960, the success of the Sabin vaccine trials overseas led the U.S. medical and public health community to switch from using Salk’s so-called “killed-virus” vaccine to using the Sabin live virus vaccine, which was more effective and economical and easier to administer.
Nineteen-sixty also saw the first of the mass-vaccination “Sabin Oral Sundays.” Sabin favored the mass vaccinations as the most effective way to halt the polio virus. Cincinnati was one of the first cities to administer the Sabin vaccine following Food and Drug Administration approval in 1960.
By 1962, Allen County was planning its own Sabin Oral Sunday, securing vaccination sites and personnel to man them. A photo in the Dec. 28, 1962, edition of the Lima Citizen shows workers setting up a freezer, borrowed from the Meadow Gold Dairy, at the county health department to be used in storing the vaccine.
As the new year rolled around, the mass vaccination was promoted at club meetings, in schools, in newspapers and from pulpits. Meanwhile, similar SOS mass vaccinations were either planned or already completed in neighboring counties. Auglaize County held its vaccinations in December 1962.
On Jan. 4, 1963, some 100,000 doses of the Sabin vaccine arrived at the Allen County Airport on a Lake Central Airlines flight.
“The Sabin Oral Sundays committee is taking a deep breath today, getting ready for distribution of Type 1 polio vaccine in Allen County Sunday,” The Lima News wrote on the eve of the big day.
“At the clinic, pharmacists will thaw the vaccine and place two drops on a cube of sugar,” the newspaper explained. “As persons go through the line, they will give a volunteer worker their filled-out registration blank (which was printed in the News and Citizen), get their cube of sugar, put it in their mouths.” After receiving the vaccine, The Lima News continued, “They will receive an identification card stating they have received Type I Sabin polio vaccine. This card must be kept and used again when Types II and III are distributed later this year.”
Despite “widespread flu attacks and less than perfect weather” there was only a small decrease in the number of people receiving the second dose of the three-dose Sabin regimen on Feb. 24, 1963. The Citizen reported the following day that 72,681 county residents “munched sugar lumps containing Type II of the Sabin Oral Vaccine Sunday.”
The final dose was administered on April 21, 1963. Although the numbers again dropped — to 70,857 residents — the Lima Citizen wrote the following day that “Allen Countians wound up their march against Polio Sunday, scoring a convincing victory.”
Just how convincing a victory became evident in the following years. Whereas in 1960, there were 2,525 cases of polio in the U.S., by 1965 there were only 61. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, no polio cases have originated in the U.S. since 1979.
Reach Greg Hoersten at [email protected]