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At 9, I was a Long Island 'Polio Pioneer' in 1954

Children line up outside the clinic, waiting for

Children line up outside the clinic, waiting for their polio vaccine shots, at the Woodbury Avenue school in Huntington on April 27, 1954. Credit: Newsday/Walter del Toro

As the COVID-19 vaccine becomes a part of our lives, I think back to another time in my life when polio was the deadly killer. It attacked young people, and if it didn’t take their lives, it left them paralyzed. Every parent feared for his or her child.

In 1954, I became a "Polio Pioneer." I was 9 years old and a student at Powell Avenue School in Bethpage. Polio struck its victims in the summer, so in late spring the country organized its assault on this dreaded disease.

The vaccination program was organized at my school late in fourth grade. On one very special day, with signed parental permission, almost every child in the school got vaccinated. However, only half of the students got the real vaccine invented by Jonas Salk and the other half got a placebo. In April 1955, the vaccine was declared a success and parents were notified whether their child got the vaccine or the placebo. I learned that I was one of the lucky half, so I had been protected for the previous six months.

Since vaccinations had never been done in school before, the staff tried to ease each child’s fear by handing out whistle lollipops to each vaccinated child. I think the staff was truly sorry by the end of that whistling school day! We were also given a "Polio Pioneer" pin button and a certificate.

As I think about the polio vaccination program, I don’t remember fearing polio. Perhaps it was because news media did not have as major a role in our lives as today. There were few radio and television stations, and news was broadcast only once or twice a day. Social media did not exist, and parents often didn’t discuss these subjects with their young children. Today, we are surrounded by media and have a lot more information and resources at our fingertips. Every adult and child has been advised to fear COVID-19.

Unlike today, in 1954 no relief funds were coming from federal grants, and money was raised door to door through fundraising events such as the Mother’s March, which helped fund polio research. Parents feared polio so much that they were readily willing to accept the words of the scientists and researchers that the vaccinations were safe.

We have battled COVID-19 since early last year, and now we are at the start of a possible prevention program. We must learn from the past. The COVID-19 vaccine is on the horizon for most Americans this year. Our scientists and medical doctors trust in its safety, and I think we must do so, too. We must end this pandemic before it takes any more lives.

Reader Barbara Kitay lives in Wantagh.

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