When I was six, and a kindergartener who’d had a bout of polio three years previously, the small California town where we were living was one of many participating in the spring 1954 polio vaccination trials. I was lined up in the dark hallway of the old brick school with maybe a hundred other kids, but I didn’t know until we’d stood there a bit that we were in line for polio shots. When I found out, I screamed and cried and a teacher and the nurse had to carry me in that state into the nurse’s office for the injection. I’d had a muscle relaxant shot every day for six months in the rehab hospital, and had never “gotten used to it.” I still remain needle-shy.
The other children were then terrified, since they knew I was the polio girl, and they thought I must know that the shots were to be feared. I believe my parents were asked to get my future shots elsewhere, because I remember my dad taking me to a doctor’s office or clinic to get my next shot, and not telling me where we were going or why. He slammed the DeSoto door on my tiny fingers afterward, probably because he was nervous too, so it was a particularly memorable occasion. There was a look of horror on his face as he hurriedly opened the door and checked my hand to find it was, indeed, not broken. This added trauma certainly provided a distraction from the shot.
There was a series of three inoculations at that time, since there was more than one strain of polio virus, and there was no assurance that I could not contract it again. My third vaccination was the sugar cube type, in 1955.
My mother had told me we hadn’t been vaccinated in 1950 because sometimes people were getting the virus from the vaccine. I researched why she might have had that misconception. (The vaccine was not even available publicly in those early years so she must have had her chronology mixed up.) One batch of the vaccine made by Cutter Laboratories in April of 1955, four years after I had come down with polio, did cause some incidence of infection; two hundred and four people contracted the disease, most of them experiencing paralysis, and eleven of them died. Normally, an incidence of one in 700,000 people would be expected from the inactivated virus vaccine. Those infrequent expected cases were sometimes found to be from poliomyelitis exposure prior to vaccination.
Theories proliferated as to the cause at Cutter, but one thing was certain: some of the bottles of vaccine had contained live virus. This was probably because the virus was kept in storage too long, clumped, and the formaldehyde (which kills the live virus and keeps it inactive) could not penetrate these “clumps.” After this debacle, the protocol for storage was vastly improved. Additionally, more testing was required before the vaccine was released and stricter tracking of the location of all vaccines was mandated by the government. By 1961, the rate of polio had dropped by ninety-six percent. The last known new case of it in the US was in 1999.