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Leon Bibb: A pandemic perspective on the search for a vaccine

For those that lived through the era, there are parallels between the polio outbreak and subsequent vaccine to what we are seeing today.

CLEVELAND — This is the story of a successful vaccine to fight a dreaded disease. Not yet for coronavirus. But if we look in the not-so-long-ago past, I find some inspiration for the future. 

That is the hope. 

So I offer this story, some of it personal, about a vaccine from the past and present as we look toward a vaccine for coronavirus. 

If you were born after the mid-1950s, you may not fully understand the enormity of the polio epidemic. 

But the vaccine road traveled in the past is probably similar in some ways to the road traveled today. 

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Polio sometimes called Infantile Paralysis, was contagious and terrifying. It could lead to permanent paralysis and even death. 

In the 20th century, it spread and within a matter of hours could render a healthy person to a life of paralysis with excruciating pain. Before his presidency, Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1921, contracted polio and never walked unaided again. 

Most victims were children. In 1952, there were 58-thousand new cases of polio in the United States. Many victims had to live inside what was termed "iron lungs," long tubes that used pressurized air to inflate and deflate a person's lungs. 

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In those days, medical scientists were desperately searching for a vaccine just as they are today in this battle against coronavirus. Today, we live in anxiety, trying to stop a contagious enemy, just as we were doing decades ago. 

In 1955, an effective and safe vaccine was developed by Dr. Jonas Salk. In the U.S., a nationwide inoculation campaign began as Salk pushed for mandatory vaccinations. He said it was a "moral commitment."

By the millions, children who were more susceptible to polio than adults were vaccinated and schools played a part. 

Credit: Leon Bibb
FIrst came the vaccine, discovered by Dr. Jonas Salk. Then in the 60's an oral vaccine that was much more affordable for families

There was a campaign to give polio vaccination shots to kids in schools. I was a student in this elementary school. With doctors giving the shots, we kids were lined up for the Salk vaccine. I was too young to fully understand the enormity of the polio epidemic, but I do remember that day. Certainly, my parents understood. The Salk vaccine marked the beginning of the eradication of polio worldwide. 

In the early '60s developed was a second vaccine, taken orally. It was less expensive and more effective. In 100 Cleveland locations, mainly schools, the Sabin vaccine was distributed to the public, children, and adults, at a very low cost. Free to those who could not afford it. 

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Today polio vaccines are routinely given to children at a very early age. And medical science targeting the coronavirus remembers the routes traveled by Salk and Sabin. 

I am optimistic about the future just as my parents and I were optimistic about a vaccine decades ago when I was a Cleveland schoolkid getting the vaccine here at my school.

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