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I Was a Polio Pioneer, and I Can’t Wait to Get the COVID-19 Vaccine

As Alex Fulton says

As people around the world eagerly await their turn to get vaccinated against COVID-19, I’ve pondered my experience with another equally earth-shaking scientific breakthrough – the polio vaccine.

Starting in the spring of 1954, a group of children known as “Polio Pioneers” received the polio vaccine invented by Jonas Salk. At the age of six, I was one of them as the first child in LaCrosse County, Wisconsin to be vaccinated with the Salk vaccine.

Polio is a highly contagious viral disease that can lead to paralysis within a few hours and death in 5 to 10% of those who are paralyzed.

The scariest part? Polio mainly affects children under the age of five. And in the 1950s it spread like wildfire.

While I have many happy childhood memories, being a young child during a polio epidemic is not part of being. Similar to today’s COVID-19 pandemic, we had to isolate ourselves to slow the spread of a virus. The big difference is that children were most affected by polio.

Quarantines were imposed across the country and travel was restricted. The polio threat in the area I grew up in was so great that in 1945 the health department banned all out-of-school gatherings for children under the age of 16. They only kept schools open because they had no other way to keep track of which children were sick.

Summer was the worst. Beaches, pools, movie theaters, and basically any place we would normally come together for fun were all closed. Instead of running around and playing outside with our friends, we were cooped up inside.

At home we saw our parents’ foreheads wrinkle with worry every time we sneezed. We saw the fear in their eyes as they spoke in hushed voices about how quickly the disease was spreading and how many children were dying.

Even in my tiny town with its one-room schoolhouse, none of us were safe from polio. I remember a cute little boy who lived in our neighborhood and got it. He recovered but limped constantly.

When the news of Salk’s polio vaccine spread, the relief was palpable. People celebrated just like they did when the COVID-19 vaccine was announced – another parallel between then and now. It is remarkable to relive such a monumental moment.

I’m not sure why I was the first person in my county to be selected to receive Salk’s vaccine, but I can only guess that my parents took the chance to make me a “polio pioneer”. They were a firm believer in science and had always been proactive in getting my siblings and me vaccinated on schedule.

I imagine they must have been at least a little concerned. If the thought of a brand new vaccine worries you, imagine what it was like to offer your six year old daughter for one. But my parents never wavered, at least not before me.

There was no discussion, no listing of advantages and disadvantages. No concern about possible side effects or other unknowns associated with a new vaccine can compare to the terrible threat posed by polio.

Maybe because my parents didn’t seem concerned about me getting the polio vaccine, neither was I. I don’t remember being scared when I went into the room where the doctor was waiting – along with a reporter from the local newspaper who was sent to cover the occasion. According to the article he wrote, I didn’t even flinch when I got my shot.

I still have an excerpt from this article. And when I see messages showing early recipients of the COVID-19 vaccine, I feel related to these people. They are also pioneers.

I know we are no longer living in the 1950s and COVID-19 and polio are no longer the same disease. But their vaccines have something very important in common – a cause for hope.

I understand why some people are scared of getting the COVID-19 vaccine. It’s normal to fear the unknown, and this vaccine is as new as Salk’s polio vaccine in 1954.

So I feel compelled to share my own vaccination story.

I want people who may stand on the fence to receive the COVID-19 vaccine to be aware of my parents’ situation. Together with the families of over 1.3 million American children who took part in Salk’s polio vaccine study, they took the chance for a new vaccine because they believed it would protect me, but also because they understood that it could benefit the whole world.

I want us to be as brave now as my parents were then. I want people to trust science as much as my family so that we can eradicate this virus just as we eradicated polio.

I was first in line to get the polio and I will get my COVID-19 vaccine as soon as I can. I hope you will too.

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