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Throwback Thursday: When Winona started saying goodbye to polio

March 7, 2019 GMT

This interview originally appeared in the Winona Daily News on Feb. 10, 1963.

Next Sunday, the first of three mass clinics for oral vaccination against polio will be held in Winona. Sponsoring the project is the Winona County Medical Society, assisted by a number of other community groups and individuals. Dr. James V. Testor, chairman of the Society’s polio committee, discusses the nature of Sabin vaccine and of its target, the deadly polio virus.

Q: Dr. Testor, how big a project is a polio clinic such as this?

A: It’s pretty time-consuming. It’s developing into a larger project by the day. We have several organizations now working with us plus a number of individuals. The sponsoring organization is the Winona County Medical Society.


We have asked the help of the Hospital Women’s Auxiliary, Junior Chamber of Commerce, Civil Defense groups and the pharmaceutical association. There probably will be 100 to 150 persons working when you add up all phases of the program.

Q: For whom is the clinic being held?

A: Actually it’s for people of the Winona trade area. We originally started out to include only the county. But there are many people in nearby Wisconsin who get their medical services here in Winona, so the clinic was expanded to include the trade areas.

People who do business in Winona will have ample opportunity to pick up forms at various business places in the city.

Q: How long will it take to conduct the clinic?

A: There will be three clinics at approximately six week intervals.

Q: Should a person attend all three?

A: That’s very important. For complete immunity you must take all three vaccines.

This will be one of our problems. There is always a lot of enthusiasm for the first clinic but it tends to die down for the second and third phases.

This isn’t a matter of additional boosters. It’s three separate immunizations against three different strains of polio. It’s almost as if we were vaccinating against three different diseases.

To skip any one of the clinics will leave a person susceptible to one of the strains of polio.

Q: How good is the Sabin oral vaccine?

A: I think it’s the best available at present against the polio virus.

Q: How does it compare to the Salk vaccine?

A: The Salk vaccine is composed of all three types of dead polio viruses and has been very effective.

The oral Sabin vaccine is a live virus vaccine, such as smallpox vaccine. It has been demonstrated to be effective against polio and in preventing the spread of polio from person to person.


Q: How is polio transmitted from one person to another?

A: The polio virus spreads from the hands, or by other means to the mouth and it grows in the intestines. It does not enter the body by being breathed in or though the skin or other body openings.

In most people the virus is limited to the intestinal tract. Many people have had mild cases of polio and developed an immunity to it. In many cases they don’t realize it because they just have a little fever and that’s it.

But in paralytic polio the virus breaks out of the intestines and gets into the blood stream. If no antibiotics are present it can attack the central nervous system.

The Salk vaccine didn’t prevent the intestinal infection but it could stop the viruses when they broke out and entered the’ blood stream. It did leave one avenue of. infection open because a person could still be a carrier, even though immunized. But with the Sabin oral vaccine the intestinal tract develops an immunity, therefore the viruses can’t grow there and be passed on to others.

Q: Why are mass clinics held?

A: By public health principles, if you can immunize a certain percentage of the population you can cut off epidemic outbreaks. If we can immunize 75 percent of the population, polio will die a natural death because it can’t sustain itself among the remaining percentage.

This is part of a national program to make polio a matter of past history, The tool, is here and, it’s a good one. All we have to do is apply it and we will do with polio what we’ve done with smallpox.

Q: How will the vaccine be administered?

A: It’s given orally. In our clinic, several drops of the vaccine will be put on a sugar cube and each person will eat one cube. This has a lot of appeal in preference to needles.

Children can take it easily. In the cases of babies too small to eat the sugar cubes, the vaccine is dropped directly into their mouths.

Q: Should persons previously vaccinated with Salk serum attend this clinic too?

A: Very definitely. They will receive added protection and their resistance to polio will be raised. There may be a few of them who actually were not immune even though they had the Salk vaccine. By this means they will be sure, of getting the desired immunity.

Q: Is polio on the increase or is the incidence declining?

A: The number of cases has gone down markedly since the introduction of the Salk vaccine. In 1953, there were 53,000 cases in the country. In 1962, there were 650 cases.

Q: Were medical people in this country able to profit from observation of the results of mass oral immunizations held previously in Europe?

A: Yes, they were. I believe that about 100 million doses were given in Russia and other countries before oral vaccination was generally adopted here.

There, are several types of the vaccine and I don’t know what their results were. The Sabin type is the only one licensed for use here and it has been effective, even where epidemics have broken out, in providing quick immunity for a certain type of polio.

It was first used in this country in Cleveland. In 1960 they gave over a million doses — about 76 percent of the population — and there has not been one case of polio there since that time.

Q: Is the Sabin vaccine good for adults and children alike?

A: It’s equally effective for both. We’re emphasizing it for use in children and young adults because they are the people more inclined to get polio.

Q: Does polio attack greater numbers of children than adults?

A: It has varied in recent years. In years past, when we had no vaccination, probably most people were exposed by the time they reached, adulthood. They either had it. or developed an immunity to it.

Our prime targets now are school children and pre-school children because they are the most susceptible. About 90 million Americans already have been inoculated with Salk vaccine.

Q: Can a person recover fully from an attack of polio?

A: If a person had some nerve damage from an attack, he may recover some of the use if the injury is not too bad. Those who have no damage to the nervous system recover completely.

But once the motor nerve cells — such as those to the arms, legs, the throat — are gone, that’s it. They don’t recover.

Q: Will any drug stop polio, once a person gets the disease?

A: No. Once you develop polio there are no drugs to cure it. Only through immunization can we actually prevent the effects.

Q: Did the electron microscope provide the key to polio control by enabling scientists for the first time to actually see the virus?

A: Yes, but the really big break came, in 1949 when a Harvard researcher developed a method of growing the viruses. Then science had a ready supply of them to study. Once you study them you can develop the vaccine. This was important in the development of both the Salk and Sabin-vaccines.

Q: Is it preferable to give the vaccine in cold weather months?

A: Yes. In cold weather there are fewer competing or interfering intestinal viruses. If we were, to have polio in the community in the summer, the thing to do would be to give the Sabin vaccine to stop a possible epidemic. But we prefer the winter for administering it when possible.

Q: Will there be a fee for each dose of vaccine administered?

A: We’re asking a donation of 25 cents per vaccination. Our society has no funds for this activity and it will be costly. If everyone contributes a quarter, it will carry itself.

Editor’s note: More than 24,000 people participated in Winona’s mass immunization clinics. In the May 12, 1963, Winona Daily News, just prior to the third and final clinic, medical society officials pointed to the absence of any ill effects from the 48,000 individual dosages of serum as a graphic demonstration of the Sabin vaccine’s safety.