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50 Years Later, 'Polio Pioneers' Still Recall the Fear

Salk vaccine marked beginning of the end for crippling virus

MONDAY, April 26, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- When Marjorie Adams raised her hand at a local PTA meeting 50 years ago, she didn't think she'd be making history.

But by that simple act, the Virginia resident volunteered her 6-year-old daughter, Gail, to be one of the first to receive an experimental polio vaccine on April 26, 1954.

The vaccine, developed by 39-year-old microbiologist Dr. Jonas E. Salk, would be tested in the largest voluntary clinical field trial ever undertaken. The children in the trial would become known as "Polio Pioneeers." And the magnitude of Salk's discovery would soon reverberate around the world.

The Salk vaccine marked the beginning of the end of poliomyelitis, the summertime virus that terrified millions as it killed and crippled, usually striking children.

"Polio was a terrible fear. You can't recognize what a fearful thing it was. There were people around who were crippled [with] polio. It was a real thing. It wasn't just something you just think about, like now. It was there with you," said Adams, who is now 90 and lives in Pompano Beach, Fla.

"When your child fell sick with a cold or their body ached, you never knew," she added.

By the mid 1950s, polio was attacking up to 60,000 people a year, mostly children, in the United States alone. In its mildest form, the disease, which is caused by one of three viruses, results only in a sore throat, headache, fever and some stomach distress. If the virus enters the bloodstream, however, it can travel to the nervous system causing, in a worst-case scenario, partial or total paralysis.

After contracting polio at the age of 39, Franklin D. Roosevelt spent the rest of his life, and his presidency, in a wheelchair. Adams recalled that she often told her daughter how much she admired Eleanor Roosevelt.

"We were all just in awe of everything she did," Adams said. "I wanted to be strong like her, and progressive."

Polio is spread by person-to-person contact or by contact with secretions, food or water that might have been infected, and its epidemic spread had men, women and children in a panic.

"People were really scared, and some of the schools were closed," recalled Dr. Richard Mulvaney, one of the physicians who administered the vaccine that April morning half a century ago.

Movie houses and swimming pools were virtually empty back then, and it seemed that everyone knew someone who had been affected.

Jackie French Lonergan of Chelsea, Vt., was one of those "Polio Pioneers" and recalled one entire neighborhood that had been quarantined, and children wearing heavy braces.

Adams' daughter recalled that both her brother and she had classmates who were stricken.

"My strongest memory was of Mrs. Buckman in first grade announcing that the little boy who sat right behind me would not be coming back. He had contracted polio," Gail Adams Batt recalled.

"It hit overnight. You were a healthy kid bouncing around playing and then -- bam! -- you came down with a fever and then this paralysis would take you over," added Batt, who still lives in Virginia.

The boy's desk remained empty the rest of the school year. "I would not touch his desk," Batt said. "I was scared because I sat next to him." Batt and her girlfriends would walk by the boy's house wondering what had happened to him, whether he had ended up in an iron lung or perhaps had died.

She recalled photographs of lines of "large metal tanks that would breathe for [polio patients]. The only way to see and talk and read was through mirrors. They would show them talking to the kid next to them. If they survived and came out, they were often so totally devastated physically and on wheelchairs or crutches. It was horrible. Their legs were shrunken up."

The epidemic frightened people so much that the vaccine trial -- organized under the banner of the National Infantile Paralysis Foundation, which today is known as the March of Dimes -- also ran into trouble.

One Sunday before the trial was supposed to start, gossip columnist Walter Winchell told American mothers on his radio broadcast not to let their child have the vaccine.

"He was very upset; he thought it was dangerous and that you could get polio from the vaccine," Mulvaney recalled.

The broadcast was enough for health officials in the District of Columbia to cancel their arm of the trial. The trial organizers then called the Fairfax County Health Department, across the river in Virginia, to see if it would join. The answer was yes, and Franklin Sherman Elementary School in McLean agreed to become the first site for the inoculations.

Adams remembered that hardly anyone else raised their hand to volunteer at the school's PTA meeting she attended. But when Mulvaney turned up at Franklin Sherman with needles and serum, he remembered "quite a few" first-grade and second-grade volunteers and their mothers turned up in the cafeteria. Mulvaney gave the vaccine not only to those children, but to his own three as well.

Batt, who attended Chesterbrook Elementary School a couple of miles away, was taken out of school and driven to Franklin Sherman to receive her shot with two other "Polio Pioneers."

"I just remember being thrilled that I got to leave school. I was getting to do something special," she said. "I was scared I would cry." Batt didn't cry, but the "big boy" (second grade) standing in front of her in line fainted, she recalled.

And while she can't remember the actual shot, she does remember being taken to a drug store with a soda fountain and being treated to chocolate ice cream with whipped cream and a cherry in a silver dish.

"I was so honored to get to leave school to be part of something I didn't quite understand," she said. "I remembered this event vividly throughout my life. I was proud, but I can't take the credit. My mother and my father were the brave ones." Batt's older brother was too old to participate.

Her mother remembered feeling nervous after the vaccine had been given.

"I wondered what I had done, if I had made the right decision," Adams recalled. "It was a rarity at that time, and a lot of mothers would never do what I did."

She did make the right decision. March of Dimes documents show that 4,000 children got the Salk vaccine at Franklin Sherman. Across the United States, 1.8 million "Polio Pioneers" in grades one, two and three in 44 states took part in the trial over the course of a year. The following year, the Salk vaccine was declared "safe, potent and effective."

Polio has now been eliminated entirely from North America, and it is expected that the world, hopefully, will be free of the disease by 2005.

More information

For more on polio, visit the March of Dimes. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on National Infant Immunization Week (April 25-May 1).

SOURCES: Richard Mulvaney, M.D., retired physician, McLean, Va.; Gail Adams Batt, Arlington, Va.; Marjorie Adams, Pompano Beach, Fla.; Jackie French Lonergan, Chelsea, Vt.
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