Big turnout: Vigo County kids and adults gather at one of 16 temporary clinics set up on Sept. 16, 1962, when more than 55,000 residents got oral vaccinations to prevent polio. Tribune-Star file photo
Big turnout: Vigo County kids and adults gather at one of 16 temporary clinics set up on Sept. 16, 1962, when more than 55,000 residents got oral vaccinations to prevent polio. Tribune-Star file photo
It is possible for the Terre Haute community to unify in response to a public health crisis.

Autumn 1962 stands as a clear example.

The scourge of polio had frightened kids and their parents, as well as other adults, for years. A scientific breakthrough in 1955 — an injected vaccine developed by Dr. Jonas Salk — was providing protection from the virus that had paralyzed or killed an average of a half-million people yearly, worldwide, since the 1940s. By 1962, an oral vaccine had been devised by Dr. Albert Sabin, containing a mildly active poliovirus, rather than the inactive-virus Salk vaccine. The newer vaccine worked in the intestines to block the virus from ever entering the bloodstream.

Sabin’s vaccine was delivered via sugar cubes, distributed in paper cups to kids and adults. Infants received three drops of the tasteless vaccine by mouth.

A series of “Sabin Oral Sundays” were organized in more than 100 communities around the nation and promoted for months in advance. The plan aimed to conduct mass vaccinations on a trio of Sundays, so people of all ages and backgrounds could receive each of the three-stage oral vaccines to rid the region of paralytic poliomyelitis, more often called “infantile paralysis.” Vigo County and neighboring Vermillion, Parke and Putnam counties scheduled the local “SOS” days for Sept. 16, Oct. 21 and Nov. 25 in 1962.

Terre Haute’s response then seems confounding in 2021 America. Today, social-media misinformation and politics have stalled use of the effective, readily available and free COVID-19 vaccines, even as the Delta variant of the coronavirus causes a fourth wave of hospitalizations in the pandemic’s 16 months. So far, COVID-19 has claimed 612,000 American lives. Ninety-six percent of Indiana’s COVID-19 deaths are among the unvaccinated.

Vaccines have proven to vastly reduce the chances of hospitalization or death.

Since the first vaccines were administered in Terre Haute last December, more than seven months ago, a total of 42,096 people have been fully vaccinated in Vigo County. A larger number have chosen not to. COVID-19 has mutated and the more transmissible variant has spread this summer. Cases are surging again, and upending and threatening lives, again. It’s become a frustrating loop of the pandemic, instead of its end.

By contrast, 59 years ago, the polio immunization drive got an all-hands-on-deck response in Terre Haute, with organizers determined to make it “the finest humanitarian effort in many a day.” Mayor Ralph Tucker backed the cause, issued a “Sabin Oral Sundays” proclamation, implored residents to participate, and promised that he and his family would get their vaccines on the event’s opening day.

“We can achieve 100 percent eradication of infantile paralysis only if every individual and family will consider it a duty to avail themselves of this wonderful health opportunity,” Tucker said in a Terre Haute Tribune story. “It’s a duty a parent should not shirk.”

The effort succeeded. On the first “SOS” Sunday, a total of 55,098 infants, children and adults — including the mayor and his family — received the vaccine in Vigo County alone, the Tribune reported.

That’s 55,098 in one day.

Thousands more were distributed in the Union and St. Anthony hospitals’ emergency rooms in the following days, until supplies ran out.

A month later, 53,560 county residents chewed up the second vaccines in the three-tier process, followed by the third on Nov. 25, on Thanksgiving weekend no less.

It was an impressive endeavor.

Temporary clinics were set up in public schools and local colleges — 16 in Vigo County, five in Vermillion, three in Parke and two in Putnam. The Terre Haute Auto Dealers Association provided three vehicles, fuel and drivers to shuttle people without transportation between their homes and the clinics. March of Dimes volunteers fielded phone calls from those needing the rides. Doses were delivered and given to county jail inmates and county home residents.

Most folks paid 25 cents apiece for the vaccines, but no one was turned away for a lack of money. Some donated extra to cover the expenses.

Wabash Valley Amateur Radio Association members aired updates on the vaccines’ availability at each clinic throughout the “SOS” days. Boy Scouts served as couriers for the medical teams and the ham radio operators. Women from Terre Haute’s HELP (Housewives’ Effort for Local Progress) group placed information signs in shop windows around the community in advance of immunization events, and coordinated their sign-making with the Terre Haute Medical Society and Chamber of Commerce.

Pharmacists prepared the vaccines, placing three drops of the fluid onto the sugar cubes. A team of 400 doctors, nurses, medical professionals and trained volunteers administered the vaccines. Pfizer, maker of the vaccines, distributed the bulk vaccines from its Terre Haute plant to immunization hubs in the four-county region. Scores of businesses, service organizations and clubs supported the push, from the PTA to the corner churches. Local newspapers published vaccination registration forms many times. Reporters wrote preview stories, and the papers ran answers to frequently-asked questions on the polio and the vaccines.

The polio vaccines generated their share of tragic mistakes and controversies. Even on the eve of Terre Haute’s first “SOS” Sunday, the community and others awaited an opinion from U.S. Surgeon General Luther Terry in the wake of public concerns over Canada’s withdrawal of the Sabin vaccine after four Canadian recipients out of 4 million wound up infected. Terry declared the medicine as safe on that September Sunday 59 years ago, and the immunizations continued in Terre Haute and beyond.

The virus had disrupted and ended millions of lives through the first half of the 20th century. Images of children using iron lungs to breathe were etched in the public’s minds. Parents kept kids away from swimming pools, beaches and theaters in summers, when cases rose, suspecting those were sources of infection. Scientists eventually determined that polio typically spread through the ingestion of water containing fecal matter from an infected person.

The Salk and Sabin vaccines led to the cruel disease’s eradication. Polio was gone from the western hemisphere by 1991, according to the CDC.

As Terre Haute’s first “SOS” Sunday in 1962 concluded, Dr. Lester Mason, the Terre Haute Medical Society’s president, thanked the hundreds of people from around the community who helped prepare and carry out the immunization day, and reminded the public to return for the follow-up vaccinations. Then the physician added another thank-you, the next day’s Tribune reported.

“I would like to thank the thousands of men, women and children who have done their share to eliminate polio from our county by coming to the clinics and receiving the vaccines,” he said.
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