This week’s Fairbanks Daily News Miner’s editorial board decision to address Alaska’s poor record on keeping up with essential childhood disease vaccinations sent me back to the archives of the News-Miner from 1953 to 1955.
Massive fear about the disease among the general populace rang out in detailed coverage. And with good reason. The News-Miner quoted the National Institute for Infantile Paralysis reporting more than 15,000 cases and a total of 551 deaths in 1953. There were nearly 30,000 cases nationwide in 1951.
The announcement by Dr. Jonas Salk that he found a preventative vaccine in 1953 heartened a nation. Of course, it took two years before full approval was given.
Sadly, two sons of distinguished University of Alaska, Fairbanks Professor Donald J. Cook died of polio at this time. Their names were Kenneth and Wayne Cook. I spoke with their brother Galen. The brothers died one day apart. His parents told him three people died that week. It had been unseasonably warm. Galen wondered if the boys had played in water that was somehow polluted and contracted the disease.
Thousands of miles from Fairbanks, my friends and I in suburban Buffalo, New York, lived with nightmarish thoughts about contracting polio. That the nuns at my parochial school and my mother forbade me from going to the local swimming pool and beach only heightened my paranoia. It would not be an exaggeration to say that parents everywhere were terrified.
Then the worst happened in 1953. I had a frail and tiny buddy named Franklin who lived on Wende street next door to a favorite childless uncle who showered me with toys every visit. The times were close enough to World War II that we played World War II, arguing about who played American soldiers and who played Nazi soldiers. If we chanced to come upon firecrackers, we put the toy soldiers in cans and executed some.
Franklin contracted a nasty form of the disease called bulbar polio that attacked his brain and breathing. He literally wasted away, and my mother informed me at last he was on a respirator known as an iron lung. Came the day finally I went to see his mother to ask if I could see him despite the iron lung, she broke into tears and informed me Franklin had died. I walked away squeezing the iron toy soldier I’d hoped to give him as a gift. I was pretty shook up. Maybe I hadn’t prayed hard enough for Franklin.
For years after, I witnessed my peers in wheelchairs and braces suffering the evidence of their bouts with polio contracted before the vaccine was ready. The only other person I knew who actually contracted polio was a college friend named Kathleen who walked with a brace but was otherwise unimpaired.
In Fairbanks, the good news that unlimited vaccines were available was announced in the News-Miner on April 12, 1955. There was enough vaccine nationally to treat 30 million children.
The paper said 681 first graders from Fairbanks and North Pole were set to receive a series of three shots containing the polio vaccine.
Likely some of that first group are now News-Miner readers in their mid-70s. You and I had a chance to lead lives that Franklin never had. We all should be appalled that health officials worry polio, measles, mumps and so on might make a comeback in Alaska because vaccination percentages have dropped so low.
I wish I still had that toy soldier.