Reflecting Pool

Reflecting Pool

It’ll Only Hurt a Bit: 65 years after Jonas Salk, the world awaits another vaccine

by Malcom Barlow

Today’s universal fear of COVID-19, and the steps we have been taking to deal with it, reminded me of the fear of polio we all felt prior to 1955.

 I was born in 1943 in Manchester, one of 6 children of Francis and Osee Barlow.  Our parents talked with each other about this polio thing, particularly in the warm summer days.  It struck hardest at children. How it picked which children seemed a mystery.  But summers were tense.  Our parents warned us not to go swimming in local pools like Globe Hollow.  Polio cases seemed to happen most in the hot, late days of summer.  We know now that it was transmitted between children by touch and by water – water such as in a warm swimming hole.

 As soon as the vaccine was available, all of us were vaccinated.  There was a sharp prick, and then we were rushed on through the lines of children.

When a vaccine is found for COVID-19, there will be another sharp prick on my arm, about where the Salk vaccine entered me.  I will remember the first vaccine prick, what it represented to my parents – such relief.  And I will not feel the pain.


Note: This piece first appeared in the Manchester Public Schools e-newsletter with the following Editor’s Notes:

Fear of the Coronavirus is, for Malcolm Barlow and many of his generation, rooted in memories of the polio epidemic, which afflicted children through the first half of the 20th Century, only ending in 1955 when Jonas Salk developed a vaccine.

Each summer before that, though, the highly infectious virus would arrive and no one was sure how it was transmitted or what caused it. 

The worst year was 1952, when there were more than 57,000 cases in the United States resulting in more than 3,000 deaths. Those who survived often ended up with some form of paralysis, forcing them to use crutches, wheelchairs or to be put into an iron lung, a large tank respirator that would pull air in and out of the lungs, allowing them to breathe.

However, once drug manufacturers made the vaccine available more than 400 million doses were distributed between 1955 and 1962. Cases dropped dramatically and although polio still exists it is extremely rare today.


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