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Before the coronavirus, here’s how Tampa Bay fought polio with vaccines

Thousands of children received polio vaccines in schools, while one Florida man was arrested for spreading anti-science propaganda.
Dixie Lee Heckel, then 3, receives her polio shot at the Leon County Health Unit in Tallahassee, Florida, on June 23, 1957.
Dixie Lee Heckel, then 3, receives her polio shot at the Leon County Health Unit in Tallahassee, Florida, on June 23, 1957. [ State Library and Archives of Florida ]
Published Dec. 16, 2020
Updated Dec. 16, 2020

History was made in Tampa Bay Monday as the first dose of coronavirus vaccine was given locally to a nurse at Tampa General Hospital. It was a long-awaited moment of hope for many, even those whose shots are months away.

As we wait we can learn from Tampa Bay’s vaccine past, starting with the polio vaccine. These lifesaving vaccinations emerged in the 1950s as researchers crusaded to stop a virus that attacked the nervous system.

While the populations most vulnerable to the coronavirus skew older, poliomyelitis was largely identified as a children’s disease, said Naomi Rogers, a professor of the history of medicine at Yale University. Younger children were most likely to experience paralysis and other severe symptoms later.

“Children may have been the most vulnerable, but that didn’t mean other people couldn’t get polio,” she said.

Unidentified twins with polio in Tallahassee, photographed on May 18, 1960.
Unidentified twins with polio in Tallahassee, photographed on May 18, 1960. [ State Library and Archives of Florida ]
A photograph from the 1950s shows Florida health care workers with a polio victim in an iron lung, a type of ventilator that helped patients breathe.
A photograph from the 1950s shows Florida health care workers with a polio victim in an iron lung, a type of ventilator that helped patients breathe. [ STATE ARCHIVES OF FLORIDA | State Archives of Florida ]

This year, multiple companies have raced to create a coronavirus vaccine. Back then, public health experts in the United States were focused on developing and distributing Dr. Jonas Salk’s vaccine to fight polio, Rogers said. Salk started working on the polio vaccine in the late 1940s. He had developed and tested a version that he felt comfortable with by 1953.

In 1954, clinical trials involved roughly two million American children, including second graders in Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. Tampa eagerly welcomed the Salk vaccine in April 1955.

“We are greatly relieved,” James E. Wall Jr., general chairman for Hillsborough County’s polio vaccine program, told The Tampa Times then. “We are tickled pink.”

Nearly 12,000 first and second grade students in Hillsborough County signed up to get the vaccine. The county health department administered a course of three shots to children whose parents consented to participate in the voluntary program. Teams of local volunteer doctors and nurses — along with 300 homeroom mothers — were recruited to facilitate the mass vaccinations in schools.

Many Florida children received the poliomyelitis vaccine at school during the 1950s.
Many Florida children received the poliomyelitis vaccine at school during the 1950s. [ STATE ARCHIVES OF FLORIDA | State Archives of Florida ]

There were problems with some of the early polio vaccines, Rogers said. Roughly 200,000 people received a batch developed by the Cutter Laboratories in California that had been improperly prepared. Thousands fell ill from the defective doses. Ten children died. Several hundred others were paralyzed.

“There were no more vaccines until they investigated what had happened and identified that it was a particular batch that had been inappropriately monitored,” Rogers said. “They fixed that. And then, within a month or so, they really started the vaccine program.”

Meanwhile, an anti-vaccine movement was already brewing in South Florida. Duon Miller, an Ohio cosmetics manufacturer, started Polio Prevention Inc. in Coral Gables. According to the Miami News, Miller’s company provided “moral and financial support throughout the country to individuals and organizations who spread fear about the polio vaccine.”

The Tampa Daily Times reported sightings of Miller’s anti-polio vaccine pamphlets stuffed inside local mailboxes. Some Tampa residents said they were handed the papers by strangers on the street.

Miller was arrested in Miami in 1954 on federal criminal charges of mail fraud and placed on probation for two years. His campaigning could be aggressive: The Dimon family of North Miami received a phone call from Polio Prevention Inc. after the local news published a story about their daughter’s polio hospitalization. Soon after, they were sent five pamphlets from the group.

“They had titles like ‘Murder, Inc.,’ ‘The Truth About Polio,’ and ‘Stop This Voodooism,’” the mother told a reporter in 1955. “It was particularly horrible to receive them when we were upset and really worried about death.”

“The shampoo manufacturer, who claims polio is caused by soft drinks, is accused of sending cards containing language of ‘libelous, scurrilous and defamatory nature’ in his fight against vaccinations,” wrote The Journal Herald, a newspaper in Miller’s hometown of Dayton, Ohio.

“One of the cards he is charged with circulating states, ‘thousands of little white coffins will be used to bury victims of Salk’s heinous and fraudulent vaccine.’”

Health authorities stood by their vaccine. Polio cases dropped. And for the most part, the general population trusted it, said Michael Teng, an associate dean at the Morsani College of Medicine and an associate professor at USF.

“Vaccines were more respected back then because you could actually see people who had really suffered from the polio virus, who were walking around on crutches because the polio virus had destroyed their nerve cells,” Teng said.

The immunization efforts continued into the 1960s. After the initial campaign to get doses in schoolchildren, there was a lag in immunizations, Rogers said. The next push from health officials was to vaccinate not just the most vulnerable youngsters, but also teens and adults. For the vaccine to work best, mass vaccination was necessary.

“Elvis Presley very publicly rolled up his sleeve and got the shot,” Teng said. “It actually was pretty successful. People were really, really good about getting the polio vaccine.”

“In the 50s and early 60s, it was really a high point of medical American science,” Rogers said. “It would have been extraordinarily unpopular for a celebrity to come out against science.”

A public health nurse prepares a shot of poliomyelitis vaccine at the Leon County Health Department in Tallahassee, Florida, during the 1950s.
A public health nurse prepares a shot of poliomyelitis vaccine at the Leon County Health Department in Tallahassee, Florida, during the 1950s. [ STATE ARCHIVES OF FLORIDA | State Archives of Florida ]

Trials for the new liquid Cox vaccine, named for bacteriologist Herald R. Cox, emerged in South Florida in 1960, the Boston Globe reported. More than 500,000 Dade County residents downed the oral vaccine, a cherry-colored liquid containing a weakened live polio virus.

Over 2 1/2 million live virus vaccines had already been given out in Central and South America, but at that point it had only been used in limited United States studies. The story called the test “the nation’s first attempt to wipe out polio on a community-wide basis.”

The program was approved in 1961. By May 1962, officials praised the vaccine trial in Dade County, saying the Cox oral vaccine was “highly encouraging.”

Another oral vaccine, named for researcher Albert Sabin, was also approved. Health officials encouraged those who got the Salk Vaccine in the 1950s to sip down two Sabin vaccines of the 60s as a booster, wrote the Tampa Times. In addition to elementary-aged tots, the treatment was given to University of South Florida students, civilians and airmen at MacDill Air Force Base.

“No citizen of Hillsborough County under 40 should have any excuse for not being protected against polio,” said Dr. James O. Bond, director of the Bureau of Preventable Diseases of the Florida State Board of Health, in 1962.

The year 1969 broke records, the St. Petersburg Times reported, with no polio deaths recorded nationwide. As the decade wound down, the polio vaccine had been joined by vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella, Rogers said. Those vaccines are now part of routine childhood vaccines. Other immunizations came later, like the 1995 chicken pox vaccine.

“By the end of the 60s, people were starting to say that there would be a vaccine for every disease,” she said. “And that was the hope.”

A measles shots line at Civic Center in Tallahassee, Florida, during the 1980s.
A measles shots line at Civic Center in Tallahassee, Florida, during the 1980s. [ State Library and Archives of Florida ]
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