Backroads

For many decades, medical researchers were baffled by polio and how it spread. Polio forced closures of schools, churches, stores and entertainment venues just like the present COVID-19 outbreak.

The current rapid spread of COVID-19 has forced shutdowns of schools, churches, stores and entertainment venues.

Haunted by dreadful terror in the mid-20th century, Bell County residents of certain ages can remember the same happening during poliomyelitis outbreaks. Fearful parents isolated their children; intense public campaigns focused on education and prevention — but against what, no one knew.

Just as COVID-19 is affecting public health and government today, polio became more than a disease. The disease changed how medical and governmental officials handled epidemics. Some policies remained in effect with later influenza epidemics such as H1N1 vaccination campaigns and quarantine measures related to Ebola and SARS.

“Polio also had a sweeping cultural and societal effect,” said Dr. Heather Wooten, professor of medical humanities at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. Wooten is the author of “The Polio Years in Texas: Battling a Terrifying Unknown” (Texas A&M Press, 2009).

Texas was among the hardest hit states, especially along the Gulf Coast. The summers were the most virulent, with the worse outbreaks skipping roughly two-year cycles.

Polio’s cause was mysterious; infected milk, poor sanitation, rodents, stormy weather and cockroaches were all considered sources. Eventually, medical researchers discovered that polio was caused by one of three viruses infecting the central nervous system.

The summers of 1948 and 1952 racked up the most victims. In May 1948, just after its first reported case of the year, the Bell County Health Department ordered cleanups. A week later, officials in Temple, Belton, Bartlett and Killeen launched massive citywide cleanups, ridding houses and alleys of trash and brush.

Truck foggers roamed city streets, spraying roiling noxious clouds of DDT and other insecticides.

Efforts were futile. By 1949, Texas led the nation in reported cases, with 1,123 cases in 142 counties.

The Killeen Daily Herald implored residents to clean up their homes. Dr. Joseph Anthony Fowler (1903-1985), Killeen’s health officer, said sanitation was improving and violators would face severe fines.

Connally Neal (1916-1999), Pendleton school district superintendent and county anti-polio committee chairman, announced successful clean-ups. However, within a week, five more children were stricken.

Polio created medical irony. “Unlike most diseases, polio is, in a real sense, a product of cleanliness rather than filth,” Wooten said. “After the virus is excreted through the stools, it continues to live for several days. In societies where hygiene is poor, children are often exposed to the virus at an early age while they are still protected by maternal antibodies. If they contract the disease, the attack is usually mild, with little if any permanent paralysis, bestowing a lifetime of immunity.”

Thus, some children contracted mild cases — no worse than sniffles and mild fever. For others, the virus attacked with vengeance, leaving them with paralysis and permanent disability.

By far, 1952 was the worst epidemic with 3,984 cases statewide. The U.S. reported a record 58,000 cases. Physicians were helpless to prevent or cure the creeping paralysis.

After a 1952 landmark pilot program, Bell County children received gamma globulin shots in an attempt to forestall the virus. When the Little River outbreak occurred in October 1954, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis shipped $30,000 worth of gamma globulin to inoculate 400 children and pregnant women throughout the county.

Still, more were felled with the virus.

A Bell County native was the crucial catalyst for the final defeat of polio. Killeen native Oveta Culp Hobby (1905-1995), newly appointed as U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, ordered licensing the Salk polio vaccine for general use on April 12, 1955.

By that fall, students lined up for the Salk vaccine in Bell, Coryell and Falls counties. The inoculation drives gradually showed success. Incidences statewide dropped from 1,359 in 1956 to 734 in 1957. By 1960, only 184 were reported in Texas.

Introduced in 1962, the Sabin oral vaccine, made from weakened live viruses dropped on sugar cubes, was deemed more effective and more palatable.

Dr. Jesse Ibarra (1918-2015), president of the Bell County Medical Society, and Dr. Jack Weinblatt (1926-2015), medical director, spearheaded the effort. The Medical Society underwrote the vaccine’s cost. The county’s organized effort attracted attention statewide.

“Thousands volunteered,” Ibarra said in a 2009 interview. “It was amazing.”

He and Weinblatt marshaled an army of volunteers to man 16 sites in schools, churches and community halls. Sunday, Sept. 9, 1962, was the first administration day.

Everyone worked together to conquer polio in Bell County. Wholesale grocer Tommy Strasburger donated cups and sugar cubes. Anna Laura Cole (1909-1995), Scott & White nursing director, recruited nurses. Estelle Seybold Gillespie (1916-2001) and Helen Mahoney Hammond (1914-2014) with the Bell County Medical Auxiliary enlisted volunteers. Fort Hood provided a helicopter to shuttle supplies between sites. Scores of civic and church groups signed up to help. Temple Rotarians served lunches to volunteers

In all, 97.2 percent of Temple residents showed up that first Sunday, besting percentages of larger cities such as Houston, Dallas and Waco. “(Temple’s effort) is an example of what an aroused and united community can accomplish under the proper leadership,” said an editorial in the Waco Tribune-Herald. The Dallas Morning News reported that Bell County’s inoculation drive was the “gold standard” for other cities should follow.

Vaccine drives continued on two subsequent Sundays. Overall, 81 percent of Bell residents were inoculated.

The campaign netted another benefit. “We didn’t charge, but we put buckets at the end of the tables so people could donate money if they wished,” Ibarra said.

After final tallies, the Medical Society covered the cost of the vaccine, clearing $16,625 over expenses. Those funds were invested to create medical scholarships administered by the auxiliary, now the Bell County Medical Alliance.

The terrifying foe — poliomyelitis — was finally defeated with the most potent weapon of all — sugar cubes doused with vaccine.

By 1994, health officials certified that the Western Hemisphere was polio-free. In less than 10 years, the Western Pacific and Europe followed suit.

Sweet victory, indeed.

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