Vaccine efforts then & now: survivors, doctor reflect on polio vaccine

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Polio survivor Dee Reynolds poses with her brother as a child. Courtesy: Dee Reynolds 4/26/21

LEXINGTON, Ky. (WTVQ) – On this day in 1954, the polio vaccine trails began here in the U.S. It took decades, but the vaccine was finally made available a year later.

How far has public health come since then and what lessons did the polio trials teach us?

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Dee Reynolds is a polio survivor in Lexington. She remembers the difficult time she had growing up.

“My memories are being this little girl in third or fourth grade and I was the only one in my school who had polio,” Reynolds said. “I was in the hospital for several months. I could not walk when I came out of the hospital. [I] had to go through rehabilitation.”

Reynolds said that was in 1950 and when polio trials began four years later, her parents quickly signed her up so that she wouldn’t contract any other strains of the disease.

“Being in the hospital at six years old for three months was bad enough without having to think about going back to the hospital if I got that sick again,” Reynolds said.

Though she was only a child and her parents made the decision, Reynolds said her experience led her to believe in vaccines. She got the coronavirus vaccine as soon as she was eligible.

Dr. F. Douglas Scutchfield, founder of University of Kentucky’s College of Public Health, said the polio trials set the tone for several medical advances. Some examples include the standard double blind trial and testing waste water for viruses.

Scutchfield remembers getting the vaccine as a young boy.

He said some people were hesitant about the polio vaccine after one manufacturer’s mistake caused some children to develop the disease.

“The vaccine hesitancy associated with that was devastating – or could have been devastating,” Scutchfield said.

But health officials quickly reassured the public by identifying and resolving the problem. It’s something Scutchfield says is similar to what happened with the Johnson and Johnson vaccine.

One big difference though? The internet.

“It gives ready access to those who don’t use science in the decision-making about the use of the vaccine,” Scutchfield said.

As a polio survivor himself, Senator Mitch McConnell continues to urge Kentuckians to get vaccinated.

“It was a modern medical miracle,” McConnell said. “The only way this can fail us is if we don’t get enough people vaccinated.”