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Iowans played an important part in the evolution of vaccines

Published: Mar. 22, 2021 at 10:27 PM CDT
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - Health experts point to vaccines as the way to end the COVID-19 pandemic. With more than 44 million Americans and nearly half a million Iowans now fully vaccinated, they’re hopeful for a return to normal life this summer.

Iowans remember how vaccines have changed history before: by bringing an end to the polio epidemic.

In 1952, there were more than 57,000 reported cases of polio in the United States, some of which caused paralysis, with the need for braces or an iron lung. More than 3,000 people died. That same year, Dr. Jonas Salk began early tests of his vaccine.

“It appears now, that we have a practical means to inducing antibody formation to poliomyelitis virus,” Salk said during an interview, introducing his vaccine.

Dr. Salk grew the poliovirus on tissue from monkey kidneys, then inactivated it to create his vaccine. In 1954, he expanded testing to include more than one million kids in three countries, including thousands of kids in Linn County.

Bob McDonnell grew up in Cedar Rapids and attended Kenwood Elementary School. He remembers lining up in the Kenwood gym as part of the 1954 field study.

“I do remember of percentage, maybe 50% got the real vaccine, 50% got a placebo,” McDonnell said. “I don’t remember anybody opting out. That was the thing to do, so we did it.”

Parents filled out paperwork for their children to participate. Of the more than 6,000 eligible in Linn County, nearly 5,000 children were part of the study. Patti Koch was also part of the study at Kenwood. She remembers receiving a certificate and “Polio Pioneer” pin for getting the shots.

“What was frightening to me was the iron lungs. You would see the pictures of the iron lungs,” Koch said. “It’s kind of like now, with the pandemic. So many people were frightened of it.”

McDonnell and Koch were in third grade at the time. McDonnell recalls a list published in The Gazette with the names of children who received the vaccine. His name was on that list. Koch was disappointed to learn she had received the placebo, since that meant taking the series of three shots over again.

Doctors said Koch’s mother likely had polio as a child.

“Her legs were always weak. She didn’t have the strength that she should have and they said it was because of the polio,” Koch said. “I asked my mom later, in later years, why she let me a guinea pig for the vaccine and she said she wanted to make sure, you know, that I did not get it.”

Dr. Pat Winokur was the principal investigator for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine trial at the University of Iowa. She said we’ve come a long way in vaccine development.

“Back in the 1950′s when we were developing vaccines, we were pretty crude in how we developed vaccines,” Winokur said. “At that time, most of the vaccines were what we call ‘whole-cell’ vaccines, and even if they were inactivated, you took the whole virus; you grew it and then you inactivated it somehow.”

The Salk vaccine used formaldehyde to inactivate a live poliovirus. Winokur said advancements since then make today’s COVID-19 vaccines safer and easier to tolerate.

“We’ve learned how to manipulate both the molecular biology and learned how to expose the immune system to these individual proteins to get a really strong immune response,” Winokur said.

Winokur said that’s how all three authorized COVID-19 vaccines in the U.S. work. Today’s clinical trials include a clear explanation of risks, with children tested last.

“It’s a lot about education of the people who are in the trials and really explaining all the risks and benefits,” Winokur said. “But at the same time, we’ve started to have people becoming more concerned about the safety of vaccines, so it’s a little puzzling.”

In 1955, the results of the massive polio study showed Salk’s vaccine was 80% to 90% effective against paralytic polio. The disease was eliminated from the U.S. in 1979, though there are some cases in other countries. McDonnell and Koch know they were part of history.

“I was on a timeline in my life where I happened to be in a vulnerable population twice,” McDonnell, who has received both doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, said. “I certainly don’t consider myself a hero or a lifesaver or anything like that, I was just a kid going to Kenwood Elementary School.”

Koch plans to get the COVID-19 vaccine, saying she misses gathering in her church and socializing with others. Though she didn’t understand the importance of the polio field study in 1954, she’s proud to have been part of the effort.

“We were the pioneers and we did get out there and it did make a difference,” Koch said. “And I think that’s the important thing, that it did make a difference.”

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