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Cindy Lange-Kubick: Polio Pioneers waiting for a new vaccination
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Cindy Lange-Kubick: Polio Pioneers waiting for a new vaccination

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Cindy Lange-Kubick has loved writing columns about life in her hometown since 1994. She had hoped to become a people person by now, nonetheless she would love to hear your tales of fascinating neighbors and interesting places.

She kept them.

They are there somewhere in a box in a Houston garage — a card and a badge that declare Diane Parks a Polio Pioneer.

Parks is 74 now, a mother of three and a grandmother to six. She and her husband moved from Lincoln after college and eventually settled in the big oil city down south.

She remembers getting those shots back in Lincoln in 1955, one of millions of schoolchildren across the country who lined up for the Salk vaccination at the height of the polio epidemic.

She was 8. A student at Blessed Sacrament on Lake Street.

“I think probably most of the kids in my second-grade class did it,” Parks said. “They stuffed as many kids in a car as they could and we drove to St. Teresa’s across town.”

She remembers a series of shots — and a series of seatbelt-free return trips. She remembers a few kids fainting.

She remembers feeling like she might.

“I think they let me sit by the window and open it.”

She also remembers what polio did. The fear. The deserted swimming pools and empty movie theaters.

“I guess we didn’t think of ourselves as guinea pigs,” she says. “Polio was a horrible thing.”

Poliomyelitis was sometimes called infantile paralysis, because it primarily affected children, withering their limbs and stealing their breath. It came in waves — usually in the summer — and when Parks was a girl, a polio tsunami hit the United States.

In 1952, 114 Nebraskans died of polio, most of them children, and more than 2,000 more suffered permanent disabilities.

It played out in a way that feels eerily familiar.

The majority of those who contracted polio — 70% to 90% — showed no symptoms, or mild symptoms. A sore throat. A stiff leg. A feeling of weakness that came and went.

The afflicted were quarantined at home by public health officials. When they were sick enough to be hospitalized, children weren’t allowed visitors — including their parents — for 10 to 14 days.

Iron lungs — whole-body breathing machines before the time of ventilators — kept those with severe cases breathing until they recovered or died.

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Cheryl Moncure remembers polio and the shots that protected children.

She was Cheryl Johnson when she joined the Polio Pioneers on April 26, 1955, a 6-year-old with her Waverly schoolmates in a long line at the Lancaster County Health Department.

She was scared, Moncure said. She didn’t know what a vaccination was.

“I remember I was looking at my arm because I wanted to see what they were doing.”

Shots don’t bother her, said Moncure, 72, who still watches the needle go in when she gets her annual flu shot.

She’ll watch it when the COVID-19 vaccine becomes available, too.

Cindy Lange-Kubick: The tale of two pandemics, separated by a century

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We are a divided people in so many ways. Politics, the pandemic, vaccines.

Back in the days of polio, people were more trusting of the government. But our trust has eroded and the government has failed its people. Some of them more than others.

It experimented on Black Americans — from the days of slavery to the decades-long Tuskegee study.

In 1955, a batch of the Salk vaccine was linked to more than 250 cases of polio.

A few years later, an oral version containing live polio virus was developed by Albert Sabin, and in 1962, Nebraskans lined up to drink it like Kool-Aid.

A small number of people across the country contracted polio from that vaccine and lawsuits were filed.

David Barstow, editor of History Nebraska Magazine, wrote about the polio vaccine — and public reaction — in the magazine in 2019.

“I haven’t learned how these lawsuits were resolved,” he wrote, “but what is clear is that news related to the Sabin and Salk vaccines remained overwhelmingly positive over the next few years, until polio vaccination joined existing vaccinations as a rite of childhood.”

There wasn’t a vocal anti-vaccine movement then.

The worry went away, he wrote, and with it hundreds of thousands of cases of polio and the devastation and death that came with the virus.

“It wasn’t difficult for the public to see that the risk of vaccination was tiny compared to the risk of not being vaccinated.”

Cindy Lange-Kubick: The vaccination debate, and the risk of loving our babies

Parks thinks about that. She has an 8-year-old grandson; would she send him out to be a pioneer?

Now a new vaccine has emerged to help end a global nightmare, developed in record time.

Tens of thousands of global citizens signed on to test the vaccines, including State Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha, who lost his father to COVID-19.

Nebraska will get its first doses soon. Healthcare workers and first-responders and residents of nursing homes are top of the list.

A pair of Polio Pioneers is ready.

“We’re seeing what happens to people who get sick, we see how horrible it is,” Moncure said. “Seeing those kids in iron lungs was terrifying to me as a child, now seeing people in the hospital, people need to pay attention.”

Tom Safranek, the longtime state epidemiologist and current special assistant to the Department of Health and Human Services CEO, is paying attention. He reads all the latest COVID-19 data. The reports on cases and trends. The expectation that deaths will top 500,000 by April, even with the unrolling of vaccinations.

He knows there is vaccine wariness. But Nebraska is among the states most receptive to vaccines and, in surveys, more than 80 percent are open to taking the new one.

Down in Houston, Parks is hoping citizens across the country will sign up for their shots.

“I think a lot of people can’t wait for the vaccine to come along so we can start our lives again,” she said. “Particularly in my age group.”

Twenty years ago, I wrote about the polio epidemic after public health nurse Cynthia Timpson organized a display at the State Office Building.

They’d found an iron lung for the display, and I’d found some polio survivors.

We talked about how polio had changed their lives overnight, about a terrifying disease laid low by a vaccine.

“It was an era that is no more,” Larry Nedrow declared. “Polio? What the hell is that? Nobody knows anymore — and that’s good.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7218 or clangekubick@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @TheRealCLK

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Columnist

Cindy Lange-Kubick has loved writing columns about life in her hometown since 1994. She had hoped to become a people person by now, nonetheless she would love to hear your tales of fascinating neighbors and interesting places.

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