The story of two vaccines: the battles to fight polio and COVID-19


The church bells have sounded. Car horns honked. Stores painted “Thank you, Dr Salk” on their windows. Synagogues and churches held thanksgiving services.

It was 1955 in America. Dr Jonas Salk, the son of Jewish immigrants and the first in his family to go to college, had successfully developed a polio vaccine.

A young Charlotte D. Jacobs, the daughter of Presbyterians from the Bible belt state of Tennessee, has already been vaccinated. She got it the year before as part of the March of Dimes national trial of Salk’s vaccine.

First of two parts

Coming October 3: From the Pope to Franklin Graham to the Dalai Lama, a look at the faith-based campaign to convert the hearts and minds of the unvaccinated.

“My parents signed the clearance because they wanted to protect me from polio, steel lungs and paralysis, she recalls. “They trusted the medical profession, their government leaders and Jonas Salk. “

After this news, children’s vaccinations accelerated, followed by a national mass vaccination campaign. The number of polio cases dropped from 35,000 in 1953 to just 161 cases in 1961.

Salk was a national hero. He was going to found the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, living his last years here until his death in 1995. Jacobs would become professor of medicine at Stanford and write a biography of Salk, “Jonas Salk: a life.

Of course, there was some opposition to the polio vaccine, but nothing to do with resistance to the COVID vaccine. In his biography of Salk, Jacobs said opponents ranged “from the legitimate to the psychotic”.

There was controversy between the camps of researchers over whether to use a live or killed virus in the vaccine (Salk was killed). And some health officials were initially reluctant to implement a large-scale vaccination campaign, given the haste with which they believed the vaccine had been developed.

A man by the name of DH Miller, who said he was president of something called Polio Prevention Inc., circulated anti-vitriolic vaccine letters, many of which were sent directly to Salk himself. One of these articles began with: “Only God above will know how many thousands of little white coffins will be used to bury the victims of Salk’s heinous and fraudulent vaccine.

Miller didn’t seem to have much of an impact.

And consider the story of famous broadcaster and gossip columnist Walter Winchell. When he heard of a contaminated test lot in 1954, he took to the air, warning of a “killer” vaccine.

Salk, who was at the University of Pittsburgh when he developed the vaccine, immediately went to the office of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to defend his work. Several national health agencies backed him up and the newspaper printed a stern rebuke from Winchell.

“The difference between the vaccine used by Dr Salk and a Winchell ‘scoop’ is that while the former is checked three times, the latter is apparently never checked once,” the editorial said. “But if he had checked just once, he wouldn’t have had a story and he wouldn’t have been Winchell.”

America would face a new millennium. Then, in 2020, there would be another deadly epidemic. But when the first vaccines rolled out in time for Christmas, this time the response was surprisingly different.

Even after offering incentives like free gift cards and drinks and a chance to win $ 1.5 million, only about half of eligible Americans have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. In San Diego County, the percentage is higher – around 77% got at least the first shot – although the opposition, judging by the hours of public commentary at government meetings, is loud.

What happened?

For one of the country’s top health leaders, a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force who helped make this vaccine a reality and has fervently prayed for what he thinks is nothing short of a miracle, this response was shocking.

“I can’t tell you that I expected it,” says Dr Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, the country’s leading medical research agency.

If you were an alien coming here in the middle of this pandemic “and you saw that there were vaccines that had been scientifically developed that are safe and effective and yet you have a lot of people resisting them, you would itch. head and you’d try to figure out why, ”Collins adds.

“How could we have had such an incredibly compelling case that potentially saved hundreds of thousands of lives and failed nearly half the population?” What happened here? “

It’s a question that makes the story of these two vaccines – polio and COVID-19 – even more intriguing. How did one become an act of patriotism and the other an act of partisanship? And how did people of faith – especially white evangelical Christians – become part of the resistance?

Sitting in his office in Bethesda, Md., With shelves of books flanking him, the frustration in Collins’ voice is palpable.

A trained physician and geneticist, Collins has spent much of his 71 years fighting disease. Prior to leading the NIH, where he served under three presidents, he led the Human Genome Project, a massive international effort to map genes in the human body. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for this work.

But his frustration goes beyond what he does for a living.

Collins is also a born-again Christian, a self-proclaimed white evangelical, the very religious group that polls show are among the most likely to oppose the vaccine. Their reasoning is a mixture of faith and politics, with arguments ranging from Jesus being their vaccine to the perception of mandates amounting to the tyranny of government.

He’s, he admits, intrigued by the attitude that if you take the vaccine, it means you don’t trust God.

“It is as if God has just answered your prayer. It’s a gift. But you have to unwrap it, which means you have to roll up your sleeves. “

So and now

In 1955, Americans had been in the throes of the polio epidemic for years. It was a terrible disease. Even an American president had been crippled by it.

It was especially sad for the children. There were “heartbreaking” photos of children in steel lungs, Collins says. Many would die. Many would be paralyzed.

“The idea that there might be a way forward was something everyone hoped for and prayed for,” Collins says.

So when he arrived, they rejoiced.

It was a very different state of mind.

“There was, I think, a general recognition that we are all invested in the health of our nation and our communities,” Collins explains, “and that science was something to be relied on and generally supportive of to achieve some success.”

The fight against polio has been a unifying force for the country, agrees Dorit R. Reiss, law professor at UC Hastings College of Law in San Francisco and is part of a national academic working group exploring vaccine ethics and policy.

“There was a common cause against polio,” she adds. “Polio was the enemy.”

But COVID-19 has been politicized from the start, she says. From the White House all the way down, if your politics and beliefs turned red, you tended to downplay the virus, make fun of wearing masks, and oppose guidelines against indoor worship services and other gatherings.

Anti-vaccines have largely capitalized on this resistance.

“Over the past 20 years, we’ve seen the rise of a well-organized and savvy anti-vaccine movement that has honed its skills and promoted its information,” Reiss notes. “And now there’s a moment of opportunity, when people are vulnerable, and they’ve grabbed it.”

Collins was aware of the anti-vax movement, which for years has campaigned against childhood immunizations. But he was surprised to see how far this attitude has spread under COVID-19, “particularly via social media, where disinformation appears to be much more effective at spreading than the real facts.”

The addition of political and religious conservatives, he said, created “a terrible mix of divisive attitudes that should never have been added to a public health problem.”

Back to Dr Salk

In 1955, Americans found a “miracle worker” in a 40-year-old virologist who wore glasses and therefore believed in his vaccine that he tested it on himself, his wife and his three sons.

It made me wonder what the story of Salk’s faith was and if it had influenced his work. Jacobs, Salk’s biographer, unearthed a speech she gave at a church in Half Moon Bay to help answer these questions.

Young Jonah was particularly struck by the Jewish obligation to ma’asim tovim, do good deeds, she had told the church.

“Every day he prayed that he would do something good for mankind,” she added. “His brothers called him ‘Little Jesus’. “

As an adult, Salk was rarely seen in the temple, although he observed Yom Kippur on the Day of Atonement and believed in a spiritual afterlife, she said.

“A close friend of his said of Salk, ‘He had a humble conviction that the power of God was working through him.’ “

Is this another missing item for the COVID vaccine?

Collins ticks off the names of the researchers and scientists who paved the way for this vaccine to be produced in record time.

“Prayers are answered by people,” he said. “Prayers are answered by science and medicine. We should be happy about it. We certainly did with polio.

So this is the story of two vaccines – or at least part of it. If the polio triumph was the best of times, will it be remembered as the worst of times?

Dolbee is the former religion and ethics editor of the San Diego Union-Tribune and former president of the Religion News Association. Email: [email protected]

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