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Joe Nocera

U.S. Has Been Down This Vaccine Rollout Road Before

The history of polio vaccinations has a stark lesson about what happens when the federal government shirks its responsibility.

The rollout of Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine was shaky.

The rollout of Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine was shaky.

Photographer: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

If you’re a person of a certain age, you most likely have a vague memory of being vaccinated for polio. Your mother took you to the doctor’s office, where you rolled up your sleeve and bravely let him administer a shot. You tried not to cry.

Getting a polio vaccination was a big deal in the mid-1950s. The poliovirus was a scourge that could inflict paralysis or death, and it mainly affected children. Parents were so terrified of polio that many wouldn’t allow their children to play outside in the summer, when the virus was most virulent. In 1952, 57,000 people in the U.S. were infected; 21,000 were paralyzed and 3,145 died. Is it any wonder that our memory of polio’s eradication is one of an untrammeled triumph?