By Jim Buchanan
2021 promises to be the year of the vaccine, with a variety of COVID-19 vaccines either approved or in the works.
However, the vaccine programs will take time to roll out. A good example of the time lag that’s possible between a miraculous new medicine and its deployment can be had by looking at the response to polio in Jackson County.
Polio was a truly terrifying disease, causing temporary or permanent paralysis and in some cases death. The peak year for polio in North Carolina was 1948, with 2,516 cases and 143 deaths reported.
Dr. Jonas Salk became world famous in a flash when he made public the discovery of a polio vaccine on April 12, 1955. Salk’s vaccine was made from “killed’’ polio virus; a major breakthrough was made a few years later with the development of a “live’’ virus vaccine that could be administered orally, commonly placed on sugar cubes.
Polio wasn’t eradicated in Jackson County in 1955, ’56 or ’57. In 1959 North Carolina became the first state to require that all children be inoculated, and in 1962 a new oral vaccine was introduced.
In 1964 the staff of C.J. Harris Hospital was able to gear up a mass immunization program here, headed by Drs. Walter Durr and David Daniel.
On Feb. 6, 1964, the Herald reported that two clinics were slated. “The trivalent preparation will be used, which will give a long-lasting immunity. Through using this preparation, only two clinics will be necessary,” the Herald reported. “The vaccine is taken orally on sugar cubes. It is comparable to preparation given in other areas where the monovalent strains were given in three succeeding clinics. The program in Jackson will be held at the same time identical clinics are being held in seven other counties – Buncombe, Burke, Caldwell, Madison, Mitchell, McDowell and Yancey. The same type vaccine is being used in these seven counties as is being used in Jackson. Stations will be set up and the vaccine will be administered to all persons over two months old. Although a contribution of 50 cents per dose for individuals is requested to help pay the cost of the immunization, the vaccine will be available to everyone.”
The program was huge news here, and was featured on the Herald’s front page for six consecutive weeks.
The public response was overwhelming. The Herald reported that a total of 10,322 people – more than two-thirds of the county population – turned out for the March 8 event. Dr. Daniel lauded the turnout but said it needed to be better, as “In order for the county to achieve a high degree of countywide immunity at least 80 percent of the population should take the vaccine.”
Reasons for the push falling short of 80 percent were varied, including an ongoing outbreak of mumps and several other viruses, and a lack of understanding about the new vaccine. Salk’s vaccine required booster shots every two years, whereas the Sabin vaccine didn’t.
The Herald reported “Throughout the day Sunday, the Stop Polio headquarters was in contact with every (vaccination) station, either by telephone or via two-way radios of the Rescue Squad. Headquarters received requests for and dispensed additional supplies and vaccine. Hourly reports also were received on the number of people attending each clinic, and the information was relayed to WMSJ” (now WRGC).
The final vaccination numbers were impressive, with almost 90 percent of county children aged 5 and under vaccinated.
The last case of polio originating in the U.S. was reported in 1979.