Saturday, May 23, 2009

No.30: The Dreaded Needle

Polio had been around a long time before we were born. A serious outbreak occurred in 1950, however, followed by an even more serious outbreak in 1952. For years the March of Dimes had funded research for a vaccine that would eradicate this plague of childhood. Finally in 1955, Jonas Salk announced a vaccine that he believed would do just that, and children all over the country began to be vaccinated against polio. Seven years later, Albert Sabin introduced an even more effective oral polio vaccine, and we all lined up to receive the vaccine-coated sugar cube that would eventually bring an end to polio.

I suppose one of the most common fears and dreads of childhood was the shot needle. It seems that almost every time you turned around, sometimes literally, someone wanted to give you a shot – in the arm or, even worse, in the hip. There were shots that felt like you had been kicked by a mule, and there were others that made you feel like you couldn’t lift your arm the next day. I remember the Health Department nurse came to the school from time to time to give shots to kids who had not already had theirs. The nurse had a deep voice and a hairy upper lip, and she was all business. We stood in a long line, waiting our turn and watching as she took boys and girls behind the screen to give them a shot. I remember hoping she would believe me when I told her that I got my shots at the doctor’s office.

The most unusual inoculation was the smallpox vaccination. They told you not to worry because it would feel like a chicken pecking your arm. I was skeptical because I’d never had a chicken peck my arm, and I wasn’t sure how that would feel. Indeed, it was not as painful as other shots. On the other hand, if it “took” as they said, an ugly scab developed on your arm and lingered for days. Everyone’s fear was that they would somehow knock the scab off. I remember seeing a friend come to school with his vaccination covered by the bottom part of a Dixie Cup taped to his arm with adhesive tape. When our scabs finally fell off on their own, we were left with permanent scars that marked us as safe from smallpox.

For a PBS American Experience documentary on what the world was like when polio was a major concern, visit the following:

1 comment:

  1. and to think.....all kids these days gotta do is eat a sugar cube.