Vaccine Memories of Another Time and Place

Lizzo’s “Good As Hell” greeted the arrival of Covid-19 vaccines this month at Boston Medical Center, where the scene of dancing health care workers quickly spread on TikTok. Others shared triumphant selfies of their arms post-injection.

For Americans of a certain generation, the rollout evoked searing memories of an earlier era — one that rescued their childhood from fear and the sudden loss of classmates and siblings.

Lynne Seymour was 8 years old in 1955, when her mother, a nurse, let out a startling noise while listening to the radio at their home in Berkeley, Calif.

“She started jumping up and down, crying and laughing at the same time,” Ms. Seymour said. “It scared me a little because I didn’t know what was happening. So I said, ‘Mom, what is it?’”

Her mother explained that Dr. Jonas Salk, a medical researcher, had developed a vaccine for a dangerous virus. “It meant we wouldn’t have to worry about polio anymore, and children wouldn’t be in iron lungs and we would go back to the swimming pool,” Ms. Seymour said. “It was like a dark cloud had lifted.”

The first polio epidemic in the United States began in Vermont in 1894, an outbreak that killed 18 people and left at least 58 paralyzed. Waves of pernicious outbreaks, targeting children, would mar the next half-century. In the country’s worst single year, 1952, nearly 60,000 children were infected and more than 3,000 died. Many were paralyzed, notably including Franklin D. Roosevelt, who would become president and hide his disability. Others were consigned to life in an iron lung, a type of ventilator that encased a child’s body to ease breathing.

A litany of other celebrated figures also lived with the disease: the songwriter Joni Mitchell, the artist Frida Kahlo, the Olympic sprinter Wilma Rudolph and Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

Parents anxiously wondered how to keep their children safe from the disease, ordering them to stay away from swimming pools and movie theaters. They practiced the hand-washing routines that have become all too familiar to families this year. (It is now understood that the polio virus spread through consumption of water and food contaminated by fecal matter.)

Dr. Salk made an ambitious bet that he could develop a vaccine for polio using inactivated virus, which was killed using formalin. When his trial was successful in April 1955, church bells rang and households cheered.

American children had been taught for years to dread summer because it so often brought polio outbreaks. A vaccine promised that they could go out and play again, and swim without as much worry.

Stefan Krieger, 74, remembered his family’s enthusiastic reaction to the news. Just a few years earlier, he caught a cold and had to miss a friend’s birthday party; everyone else who attended, including his best friend, contracted polio.

“Many of us had a classmate whose sister or brother had been stricken,” said Arlene Agus, 71.

Ms. Agus’s school in New York City distributed the vaccine in alphabetical order so she was the first to get the shot, with a lollipop as her reward.

“Over half-a-century later, I can still remember the expressions of relief from the long, winding chain of students standing behind me, grateful that they weren’t in my spot,” she said.

The federal government licensed the vaccine within hours of the announcement and manufacturers began their production efforts. “An historic victory over a dread disease,” a newscaster’s voice declared in an April 12 reel from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The announcement includes clips of men in suits rolling carts of vaccine shipments, much like this month’s images of coronavirus vaccine shipments. “Here scientists usher in a new medical age.”

After all of the fanfare, some children remembered getting the vaccine as anti-climactic. Philip McLeod, 77, who was living in Nanton, Alberta, at the time, said he and his classmates were lined up very quickly and then it was over. “It was hard to believe as a 12-year-old that was going to save your life, because it was so routine,” he said.

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Answers to Your Vaccine Questions

With distribution of a coronavirus vaccine beginning in the U.S., here are answers to some questions you may be wondering about:

    • If I live in the U.S., when can I get the vaccine? While the exact order of vaccine recipients may vary by state, most will likely put medical workers and residents of long-term care facilities first. If you want to understand how this decision is getting made, this article will help.
    • When can I return to normal life after being vaccinated? Life will return to normal only when society as a whole gains enough protection against the coronavirus. Once countries authorize a vaccine, they’ll only be able to vaccinate a few percent of their citizens at most in the first couple months. The unvaccinated majority will still remain vulnerable to getting infected. A growing number of coronavirus vaccines are showing robust protection against becoming sick. But it’s also possible for people to spread the virus without even knowing they’re infected because they experience only mild symptoms or none at all. Scientists don’t yet know if the vaccines also block the transmission of the coronavirus. So for the time being, even vaccinated people will need to wear masks, avoid indoor crowds, and so on. Once enough people get vaccinated, it will become very difficult for the coronavirus to find vulnerable people to infect. Depending on how quickly we as a society achieve that goal, life might start approaching something like normal by the fall 2021.
    • If I’ve been vaccinated, do I still need to wear a mask? Yes, but not forever. Here’s why. The coronavirus vaccines are injected deep into the muscles and stimulate the immune system to produce antibodies. This appears to be enough protection to keep the vaccinated person from getting ill. But what’s not clear is whether it’s possible for the virus to bloom in the nose — and be sneezed or breathed out to infect others — even as antibodies elsewhere in the body have mobilized to prevent the vaccinated person from getting sick. The vaccine clinical trials were designed to determine whether vaccinated people are protected from illness — not to find out whether they could still spread the coronavirus. Based on studies of flu vaccine and even patients infected with Covid-19, researchers have reason to be hopeful that vaccinated people won’t spread the virus, but more research is needed. In the meantime, everyone — even vaccinated people — will need to think of themselves as possible silent spreaders and keep wearing a mask. Read more here.
    • Will it hurt? What are the side effects? The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine is delivered as a shot in the arm, like other typical vaccines. The injection into your arm won’t feel different than any other vaccine, but the rate of short-lived side effects does appear higher than a flu shot. Tens of thousands of people have already received the vaccines, and none of them have reported any serious health problems. The side effects, which can resemble the symptoms of Covid-19, last about a day and appear more likely after the second dose. Early reports from vaccine trials suggest some people might need to take a day off from work because they feel lousy after receiving the second dose. In the Pfizer study, about half developed fatigue. Other side effects occurred in at least 25 to 33 percent of patients, sometimes more, including headaches, chills and muscle pain. While these experiences aren’t pleasant, they are a good sign that your own immune system is mounting a potent response to the vaccine that will provide long-lasting immunity.
    • Will mRNA vaccines change my genes? No. The vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer use a genetic molecule to prime the immune system. That molecule, known as mRNA, is eventually destroyed by the body. The mRNA is packaged in an oily bubble that can fuse to a cell, allowing the molecule to slip in. The cell uses the mRNA to make proteins from the coronavirus, which can stimulate the immune system. At any moment, each of our cells may contain hundreds of thousands of mRNA molecules, which they produce in order to make proteins of their own. Once those proteins are made, our cells then shred the mRNA with special enzymes. The mRNA molecules our cells make can only survive a matter of minutes. The mRNA in vaccines is engineered to withstand the cell’s enzymes a bit longer, so that the cells can make extra virus proteins and prompt a stronger immune response. But the mRNA can only last for a few days at most before they are destroyed.

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