The initial introduction of the polio vaccine did not go smoothly. Within one month, six cases of polio were linked to a vaccine manufactured by Cutter Laboratories in Berkeley, California. It soon emerged that Cutter hadn’t completely killed the virus in some batches of vaccine, a mistake that caused more than 200 cases of polio and 11 deaths. The surgeon general asked Cutter to call back and halt distribution.
Months later, in the summer and fall of 1955, a polio outbreak struck Boston and Ellen Goodman, then 6, fell ill. “I remember being in bed and feeling this electrical current move my arms and legs up and down,” she said. “Then I started moving and my left leg was numb.”
Decades later, Ms. Goodman, 71, had post-polio syndrome with symptoms such as chronic fatigue and difficulty walking. “My life has been determined by this disease,” she said. “To think it could have been avoided.”
The vaccination program restarted months later and polio cases fell sharply. Elvis Presley agreed to be vaccinated on national television to increase public confidence in the admission. But the disease has not gone away. The number of US cases rose again from 1958, particularly in urban areas. The last fall in the country due to community expansion was recorded in 1979. Although two types of polio have been eradicated, a third remains in Afghanistan and Pakistan and is still in circulation.
For those marked by memories of the polio epidemic, a vaccine for Covid cannot arrive soon enough. Many older Americans who are particularly susceptible to the disease have been incarcerated and separated from their children and grandchildren for much of this year.
Ms. Norville hasn’t left home since February and is eagerly awaiting a shot. “My son said, ‘If I could, I would bring you the vaccine today.'”
For the Salk family, relief comes with a sense of pride, as the father plays the role of advancing the scientific understanding of immunization. But the sons are also concerned about resistance to vaccination against any disease.