Polio was one of the most feared diseases of the 20th century. Little was known about the crippling and potentially deadly disease caused by a virus spread from person to person.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, polio crippled between 35,000 and 45,000 people in the United States each year. Locally, 1948 was the worst year for polio, with 31 fatalities and more than 320 people treated at the Contagious Disease Hospital which served Toledo, Lucas County, and other regional counties.
In 1947, Dr. Jonas Salk was named director of the Virus Research Laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and began research on a polio vaccine. His work caught the attention of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (which became the March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation). The organization funded Dr. Salk’s efforts to develop a vaccine against what it felt was the most frightening scourge of the time. On April 12, 1955, it was announced that the vaccine, designed to be a three-shot series, was safe and effective.
Enter Operation Ouch. The assembly line-like program to administer the first polio shots targeted first and second-graders in Toledo and began on April 25, 1955. Community Traction Company provided busses to bring youngsters to the Health Center at Erie and Orange Streets in Toledo. Those first in line were students from Birmingham School, including the group in this archived Blade photograph. Eight tables were set up on the ground floor of the Health Center. On the tables were piles of shiny needles, syringes, and vials of the pink Salk vaccine. Tubes of inhalants were also on hand to revive the faint. Teams of doctors and nurses administered the injections and the youngsters handled the process well, with some describing the shot as a mere pinprick. One thousand students were inoculated by early afternoon that first day. Student inoculations were scheduled every day into the following week.
Because polio has no cure, vaccination is the best way to stop the disease. Thanks to the Salk vaccine, the number of reported polio cases in the United States dropped to 910 by 1962. By 1979, the country became polio free, thanks primarily to widespread immunizations. Efforts continue today to eradicate the disease across the globe.
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