The Current

Polio vaccine set off wave of relief, and a wave of resistance. COVID-19 era may be similar, says Jill Lepore

The New Yorker's Jill Lepore takes a look back at how the polio vaccine saved lives and changed the course of history, and how resistance to it may be repeated in the era of COVID-19.

Announced 65 years ago, story of polio vaccine bears similarities to COVID-19: Lepore

Polio disproportionately targeted young children in waves of epidemics through the 1950s. (University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections)

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Originally published June 9, 2020.

On April 12, 1955, journalists were summoned to the University of Michigan for the results of an 18-month trial of a promising potential vaccine for polio — an announcement that may resonate with many people living through COVID-19 today.

"Hundreds of reporters show up … almost like a stampede of reporters," said Jill Lepore, a Harvard professor of American history and a staff writer at The New Yorker.

Then at the appointed moment, "a team of doctors stand on the stage and issue the report that the vaccine works — and then it's just like this cry that goes out across the land: the vaccine works, the vaccine works, there is a vaccine."

Lepore explores the story of the vaccine in an episode of her new podcast The Last Archive. At its height in the first half of the 20th century, polio caused paralysis, lung problems and even death, and disproportionately affected children under 12.

The disease peaked in North America in the early 1950s, putting people under lockdown conditions in the spring and summer when the disease was most prevalent. 

WATCH | A history of polio in Canada:

A history of polio in Canada

29 years ago
Duration 23:24
A look back at the year 1953, when polio last stalked Canada.

The news of a vaccine — from a team led by medical researcher Dr. Jonas Salk — led to an "incredible, incredible swell of relief around the world," Lepore told The Current's Matt Galloway.

But alongside that elation there was a resistance, which she fears may be repeated in the search for a viable treatment for COVID-19.

"Already people are ready to fight the battle to defeat compulsory coronavirus vaccination, which is shocking to me, but goes back well over a century," she said.

U.S. wasn't ready for polio vaccination: Lepore

Lepore explained that anti-vaccination movements had gained momentum in the early 20th century, questioning "the state's authority to require parents to get their children vaccinated, on the grounds that that is authoritarianism."

In the U.S., the idea became entangled with opposition to national health insurance, and ideas around socialism, she said.

In 1955, while Canada had used the 18-month period of the vaccine trial to set up a compulsory vaccination program, the U.S. did not.

On April 13, 1955, technicians at the Connaught Laboratories in Toronto harvest the virus to be used in the new anti-polio vaccination developed by Dr. Jonas Salk. (Fox Photos/Getty Images)

"The new secretary of health, education and welfare in the Eisenhower administration is a highly conservative woman, Oveta Culp Hobby, and she believes the federal government in the United States should have no role in the distribution of the vaccine ... that's socialism to her," Lepore told Galloway.

"It becomes this huge mess in the United States, this whole problem of the federal government's failure to act. It's chillingly like this moment," she said.

"We don't even have a vaccine for coronavirus, we're desperately waiting for the thing, but already anti-vaccination forces are lining up to oppose it on the grounds that it's socialism."

Multiple vaccines are being tested around the world, with some already in human trials due to the urgency of addressing the COVID-19 pandemic. 

WATCH | A subject in a COVID-19 vaccine trial explains why he volunteered:

Sean Doyle is one of 17 subjects in COVID-19 vaccine trial at Emory University, Georgia.

2 years ago
Duration 1:19
Sean Doyle is one of 17 subjects in COVID-19 vaccine trial at Emory University, Georgia.

An online video that went viral in May claimed the COVID-19 pandemic was a plot by billionaires to deploy a vaccine capable of controlling people. The video was debunked and removed from major social media platforms, but continued to be available on alt-tech platforms, many of which position themselves as alternatives to the popular mainstream social media platforms.

Speaking to The Current in April, professor of epidemiology Dr. Natasha Crowcroft said the scale of the current pandemic would push many people towards accepting a vaccine, but that clear communication would be needed to ensure trust.

"If anything goes wrong — or if something doesn't go wrong, but just rumours spread around a new vaccine — we'll be in trouble," said Crowcroft, director of the Centre for Vaccine-Preventable Diseases at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto.

Mistrust grows as memory fades

Lepore said that anti-vaccination sentiment persists because of the decades that pass between major disease outbreaks.

"I was born after the polio years. I remember my mother telling me about friends of hers who were felled by polio and it's sort of, at a remove from you," she said, adding that before COVID-19, her own kids would have even less of an understanding. 

"It is actually a kind of lived experience, it's in your bones, it's in your blood, it's in your heart, you know what that feels like."

Jill Lepore is a Harvard professor of American history and a staff writer at The New Yorker. (Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard University)

She said her family has been spared the worst of the current pandemic, but she has watched her kids as they worry about their grandparents, or family friends who have fallen ill or lost jobs.

"This is not a thing they will forget," she said.

"What we can hope for them and pray for them is that they will forget some of it — but they will remember the importance of the public health crusade."

Written by Padraig Moran, with files from CBC News. Produced by Idella Sturino.

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