Health History

A Tale of Two Vaccines

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Sandi Dolbee of the San Diego Union-Tribune wrote about the very different public responses to two life-saving vaccines for deadly diseases: polio and COVID-19. I remember the national fear of polio. Parents were not sure how it spread, so every family had different rules: Stay out of movie theaters, avoid public swimming pools, keep away from crowds.

She began:

Church bells rang out. Car horns honked. Stores painted “Thank you, Dr. Salk” on their windows. Synagogues and churches held services of thanksgiving.

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 vaccine against polio.

A young Charlotte D. Jacobs, the daughter of Presbyterians in the Bible belt state of Tennessee, already had her shot. She got it the year before as part of the March of Dimes’ national trial of Salk’s vaccine.

“My parents signed the permission because they wanted to protect me from polio and the iron lung and paralysis,” she remembers. “They trusted the medical profession, their government leaders and Jonas Salk.”

After that news, children’s vaccinations went into overdrive, followed by a national mass immunization drive. The number of polio cases plummeted from 35,000 in 1953 to only 161 cases in 1961.

Salk was a national hero. He would go on to found the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, living out his final years here until his death in 1995. Jacobs would grow up to be a 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, though nothing like the COVID vaccine resistance. In her biography of Salk, Jacobs said the opponents ranged “from the legitimate to the psychotic.”

There was controversy between camps of researchers over whether to use a live or a killed virus in the vaccine (Salk’s was killed). And some health officials initially balked at implementing a widespread vaccination campaign, given the haste in which they thought the shot had been developed.

A man named D.H. Miller, who said he was president of something called Polio Prevention Inc., circulated vitriolic anti–vaccine letters, many of which were sent directly to Salk himself. One such piece began, “Only God above will know how many thousands of little white coffins will be used to bury the victims of Salk’s heinous, fraudulent vaccine.”

Miller did not appear to have much impact

Even after offering incentives like gift cards and free 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 — roughly 77 percent have gotten at least the first shot — though the opposition, judging by the hours of public comments at government meetings, is vociferous.

What happened?

For one of the nation’s top health leaders, a member of the White House coronavirus task force who helped shepherd this vaccine into a reality and prayed fervently for what he believes is nothing short of a miracle, this response has been shocking.

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

If you were an alien arriving here amid this pandemic “and you saw there were vaccines that had been scientifically put together that are safe and effective and yet you have a lot of people resisting them, you would scratch your head and you would try to figure out why,” Collins adds.

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

It’s a question that makes the tale 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 — particularly 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 physician and geneticist by training, Collins has spent much of his 71 years fighting diseases. Before heading the NIH, where he has served under three presidents, he led the Human Genome Project, a massive international effort to map the genes in the human body. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for that work.

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

Collins also is a born-again Christian, a self-described White evangelical, the very religious group that polls show are among the most likely to oppose the vaccine. Their reasoning is a blend of faith and politics, with arguments ranging from Jesus being their vaccine to viewing mandates as tantamount to government tyranny.

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

“This is like God just answered your prayer. It’s a gift. But you have to unwrap it, which means you’ve got to roll up your sleeve.”

Then and now

By 1955, Americans had been in the grip of the polio outbreak for years. It was a terrible disease. Even a U.S. president had been crippled by it.

It was especially sad for children. There were “heartbreaking” pictures of kids in iron lungs, says Collins. Many would die. Many would be paralyzed.

“The idea that there might be a path forward was something everybody was hoping and praying for,” Collins says.

So when it arrived, they rejoiced.

It was a very different mindset. 

“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 count on and to be generally favorable to achieve some success.”

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