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Happy Anniversary: Polio Vaccine

Lynne Fraser remembers the neighborhood teenager who gave her polio, and maybe even when it happened. She was 4 years old in 1955 when she sat on his lap at her kitchen table and they playfully wrestled.

Weeks later, the boy was breathing only with the help of an iron lung and she was at Children's Hospital in Boston, lying in a metal crib among sandbags that kept her paralyzed limbs in place. She recalls straining to hear her father's footsteps in the hallway as he approached the room of crying children.

"I would know his footsteps if I heard them in the hallway now because you looked forward to it all day," said Fraser.

Fraser was one of hundreds of people treated for polio during an epidemic that shook the Boston area during the sweltering heat of the summer of 1955. Mothers forbade children to go to public places and hospitals were so jammed that doctors had to treat patients in their cars. More than 2,200 cases were reported statewide in a 10-week period, with more than 600 in the city of Boston alone.

It was one of the last gasps of the debilitating disease, which in its worst form infects the brain and spinal column and causes severe muscle damage, paralysis and death.

The vaccine - approved by the federal government on April 12, 1955 -got to different regions faster than others, and broad distribution took a number of years to achieve.

But when it did, it all but wiped out the polio virus around the nation.

But 50 years later, its survivors are still feeling its effects, and memories of that summer remain vivid for caretakers.

"You'd come into work in the morning and you'd see (lines outside the hospital) and say, 'Oh my word,"' said Claire McCarthy, a 22-year-old physical therapist at Children's in 1955. "You knew you were in the middle of something."

Polio epidemics occurred annually in various areas of the country from about 1916 on, and there's no definitive explanation why they moved from one region to another, said Daniel Wilson, a history professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., and a polio survivor.

Boston's epidemic was no worse than any other city's, Wilson said, but added, "What makes the Boston epidemic unique is it comes after the vaccine is available."

The vaccine, developed by Dr. Jonas Salk, was initially expensive and difficult to manufacture, factors which slowed production. Some people didn't have access to the vaccine. Others passed on the chance to be vaccinated because they didn't believe it would work - doubts made worse by an early bad batch that actually gave polio to about 200 people.

In Boston, polio patients were filling any available hospital room by July, when 460 cases were reported in the state, the worst on record for that month. People lined up outside Children's Hospital for blocks, and police were dispatched to make sure no one tried to force their way to the front.

Boston became a place to avoid. That August, 250 kids from Pawtucket, R.I., declined a fraternal organization's invitation to attend a Red Sox game after a warning by their city's health director.

The newspapers of the day displayed a mix of messages, with Boston's health commissioner proclaiming, "This is not an epidemic" in August while at the same time cautioning parents not to bring their children into Boston.

Dr. William Berenberg of Children's Hospital, in an interview for an ongoing polio oral history project sponsored by the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, called the polio hysteria in Boston "beyond description."

"Anybody who had a kid that was not feeling well... in the minds of the parents they had polio until proven otherwise," he said

Berenberg recalled using a floodlight to check patients in the line of cars.

"We'd look in the car and if the kid was playing, looked happy and mobile, he stayed in line," he said. "But the ones who were obviously in distress... we would give a card to so they could go up to the head of the line."

The 4-year-old Fraser didn't go to the hospital until after she'd spent a few days laid out on her dining room table. Her parents put her there in hopes that the flat surface would help prevent the damaging muscle contractions that come with polio.

"I remember the panic and confusion," Fraser said. "People were coming in to me like I was being waked."

Fraser was placed in quarantine in a hospital for days, away from her parents, with her arms and legs immobilized by both the disease and sandbags.

She remembers the fear and fitful sleeping amid the crying and the hissing "ka-chee" sound of the nearby iron lungs, body-sized chambers that literally breathed for polio patients who'd been placed inside. Even today, the smell of steaming hot wool, which nurses placed on her muscles to keep them loose, is still unpleasant to her.

Fraser recovered and was able to walk relatively normally, though she could not lift her left leg and is unable to work because of the disease. She's also had a cane since she broke her ankle in the early 1980s, wears a back brace and is starting to the feel the effects of "post-polio syndrome," the breakdown of muscles later in life.

She's resigned to eventually being forced to use a crutch and has a metaphysical view of her suffering during the summer of 1955 as the price she paid for her three kids to be healthy.

Fraser takes pride in surviving polio and learning to live with her handicaps but the fact the vaccine still isn't available or accepted in some parts of the world pains her.

"Not one person should have to go through that again," Fraser said.

By Jay Lindsay