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Polio, Measles, Influenza, and More – 1962 Had More Problems than a COVID Epidemic


So 2020 is the year of the Coronavirus, but 1962 had its share of virus problems too. Roadtrip-'62 ™ will take a look at them, ranging from the most dangerous, polio, to chicken pox. New viruses were being discovered and studied by electron microscopy in the early 1960s, but there was no way to classify them for study. Several scientists suggested a comprehensive scheme for classifying all viruses in 1962, based on the long-accepted system of classifying plants and animals. This resulted in viruses being classified by family, genus, and species, giving us groupings such as coronaviruses, rhinoviruses, and enteroviruses.

Virus information poster for pharmacies, 1962
Virus information poster for display at pharmacies in 1962 (Photo from an online auction.)

The development of vaccines is one of the most important advancements in medicine. And a 1962 breakthrough in vaccine development is now estimated to have prevented over 4.5 billion cases of disease and saved 10 million lives. Prior to then, many cell cultures for growing vaccines had been grown in monkey cells, but these sometimes became contaminated with potentially dangerous monkey viruses. In 1962, Leonard Hayflick and Paul Moorhead isolated a clean cell strain from an aborted human fetus, which, along with its derivatives, is now the standard used in production of more than 10 disease vaccines. Interestingly, the source is one of the arguments used by anti-vaccing proponents, who largely also believe abortions are evil. It is ironic that the very people who deny protection to their children are healthy or alive today because they were vaccinated.


Poliomyelitis, also called polio or infantile paralysis, is an infectious disease caused by a virus that can result in paralysis or death. It primarily strikes children. During the 1950s, approximately 38,000 cases were reported in the United States each year. Dr. James Luby, who was an infectious diseases specialist and professor at UT Southwestern, noted that, “Polio was the biggest public health problem in the United States at midcentury. It was fortunate that the vaccine came along in 1955.” That year, Dr. Jonas Salk developed a dead polio virus that could be used to vaccinate people and vaccinations began immediately. A few years later, in 1961, Dr. Albert Sabin developed an oral version, using a live virus weakened in the laboratory, that proved more effective, easier to administer, and provided longer-lasting immunization. Again, vaccinations began immediately but on an even larger scale. The method of administering the oral vaccine helped ensure its success, especially with children, as it was dripped onto sugar cubes that were swallowed. In the Cleveland, Ohio area, approximately 1.5 million people received the vaccine.

Children taking Salk vaccine, ca. 1963
Children taking Salk vaccine, ca. 1963 (Photo for educational purposes from Hauck Center for the Albert B. Sabin Archives, Henry R. Winkler Center for the History of the Health Professions, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, Ohio.)

Perhaps the most massive vaccination campaign in the country in 1962 was in the Dallas, Texas area. Dallas County determined to get every man, woman and child the necessary doses in one sweeping effort by using area schools and calling the people in at once. The mass immunizations were scheduled for two summer Sundays in a row so that those who couldn’t make it the first Sunday had another chance. It was a peacetime mobilization that required a mutual trust among government officials, the public and the medical community of a kind we could never see today. Over 4,500 people volunteered to help organize things! At least 500 cars on loan from new car dealers cruised Dallas neighborhoods to give free rides to the vaccination sites! The event was amazingly successful: out of a population of nearly 1 million in Dallas County, 590,000 residents received vaccine on the first Sunday, with a final number of around 950,000! I strongly suspect that if we get a vaccine in 2020 or 2021 for COVID-19, we will not be anywhere near as successful. The disease virtually disappeared here by 1979 and today, polio is one of the routine immunizations given to children in the United States.

And after similar massive efforts in Nigeria and Somalia, in August 2020, the entire continent of Africa was declared free of wild cases of polio! The vaccination campaign in Nigeria involved a heroic effort to reach remote places. In places under threat from militant violence, some health workers were even killed in the process. Only Afghanistan and Pakistan still suffer from natural polio cases.


Measles was still a real concern as a health problem for children in 1962. My whole family of 6 kids had various strains of measles in the years around 1962, though fortunately without any long-term consequence. But from 1958 to 1962, the US averaged 432 deaths associated with measles each year, so it could be a serious disease. And virtually all children acquired measles at that time, so the number of measles cases is estimated to have been 3.5 to 5 million per year. The low number of deaths was a result of antibiotics to treat complications, modern sanitation methods, and improved nutrition, compared to earlier times. In Hawaii, their first outbreak in 1848 killed up to a third of the population! By 1958, a live virus measles vaccine was tested, but the virus in the vaccine wasn’t weak enough. Most children developed high fevers and rashes similar to mild measles. Researchers came up with a way to grow the vaccine safely in eggs and administer the vaccine with a simultaneous shot of measles antibodies. This reduced side effects and the new vaccine was licensed by the FDA in March, 1963.

Doctor giving measles vaccination to boy, Fernbank School, Atlanta, Georgia, 1962
Doctor giving a measles vaccination to a young boy at Fernbank School in Atlanta, Georgia, 1962 (Public domain photo from Centers for Disease Control /Smith Collection.)

Though measles was finally eliminated in 2000, meeting the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) definition of an absence of continuous transmission for 12 months or more, it has since experienced a small resurgence. In 2019, the CDC reported 69 cases; the highest since 1994, when 958 cases were reported. They believe the current anti-vaccing sentiments among parts of the public are a significant factor contributing to the outbreaks. HHS Secretary Alex Azar notes, "The suffering we are seeing is avoidable. The measles vaccines are among the most extensively studied medical products we have, and their safety has been firmly established over many years in some of the largest vaccine studies ever undertaken."


This disease is also known as German Measles and it was particularly dangerous to unborn babies. From 1962 to 1965, a global pandemic wreaked havoc on fetuses, causing miscarriages and birth defects. Work on a vaccine was in progress, but one would not become available until 1969. Congenital rubella syndrome is contracted when the pregnant woman has rubella and it causes deafness, blindness, heart conditions, intellectual impairment, and even miscarriages for up to 85 percent of babies with the syndrome. Though the fear of rubella has largely faded from public memory, the recent zika virus has had a similar impact in areas where it is a problem. The zika virus appears to cause microcephaly, a birth defect where a baby is born with an abnormally small head and is often disabled. There is no vaccine for Zika and researchers believe it may take up to a decade to create one.

Anti-Rubella button from early 1960s campaign
Anti-Rubella button from early 1960s campaign (Photo from an online auction)

Though the last smallpox cases in Canada and the US were seen in the 1940s, an outbreak nearly occurred in 1962. In mid-August, a family returned from Brazil to Toronto, Canada and their 14-year old boy felt ill and had developed the first characteristic pockmarks of smallpox on his face. Three days later a diagnosis of smallpox was confirmed and a desperate effort to prevent a potential smallpox epidemic began. An international effort to track down and vaccinate all of Jimmie’s possible contacts was undertaken. Other countries realized the danger due to this and other events. Wales, Great Britain suffered an outbreak that saw 19 people die when a traveler from Pakistan was diagnosed with smallpox in 1962. They vaccinated 900,000 that year and Ireland decided to do the same, using local druggists to perform the task. The rest of the world soon stepped up efforts and the World Health Organization oversaw an intensive vaccination plan to eradicate smallpox. The last natural case occured in Somalia in 1977. Smallpox was declared eradicated from nature in 1980.

Chicken Pox  

I had chicken pox, probably a couple of years before 1962. There was no vaccine for this either in 1962, as it is made in cells replicated from the lungs of a fetus aborted in London in 1966. As I had mentioned previously, many vaccines are grown on cells replicated from aborted fetuses. The only vaccine for rubella is made from replicated cells from the lungs of a fetus aborted in Sweden in 1962. The chickenpox vaccine has been widely available since 1995, and the death rate of chicken pox and its related disease shingles has dropped 94 percent. Also as I mentioned previously, this source is one of the arguments used by anti-vaccing proponents, who largely also believe abortions are evil. Partly as a consequence of this, chicken pox is making a comeback in the United States. In 2020, an outbreak raged through a Catholic school in Kentucky, infecting over 30 students.


Cases of mumps have dropped by 99% in the United States since the introduction of a vaccine in 1967. Though I had both chicken pox and measles, I never had mumps as a kid. The disease usually has mild symptoms of a low-grade fever and respiratory problems. Its most obvious symptom, a swelling of the salivary glands below the ear, is only present in about 30-40% of cases. Unlike measles and rubella, however, mumps has not been eliminated in the United States. Recent large outbreaks have occurred among college students in 2006 and in a tradition-observant Jewish community in 2009. Since 1971, the mumps vaccine is administered in combination with measles and rubella vaccines as the MMR vaccine. The rubella component was changed in 1979, but in the United States the other components have remained the same since 1971.

History of West Nile Virus Slide
History of West Nile Virus (Slide from paper by Dalhatu Saidu, Kursk State Medical University, 2014)

Enterovirus was discovered in 1962 in four children in California. It produces rather mundane symptoms of fever, coughing and sneezing, as well as body and muscle aches. It also occasionally has more serious symptoms such as difficulty breathing. But it is related to polio and known for its tendency to affect children and teenagers. Because it largely disappeared without doing much damage, no vaccine was developed. However, enterovirus bounced back in 2014, killing four people in the United States. Another 38 cases were recorded in the United Kingdom. This and the slide above show that viruses can hang around in the environment for a long time and perhaps we should monitor them more closely. One wonders what the current COVID situation would look like if China would have been more careful, and what future problems we are ignoring now.


First, just what is influenza, or the flu? We have traditionally used the name for several different and even unrelated afflictions. Influenza is a respiratory infection that causes symptoms similar to, but more severe than, the common cold. Flu symptoms can include fever, cough, runny or stuffy nose and severe malaise. Probably because the flu can also sometimes cause vomiting, diarrhea and nausea, we often confuse it with a stomach or intestinal disease. Most people recover from influenza within 2 weeks without medical treatment, but sometimes causes serious complications, including pneumonia, bronchitis and sinus and ear infections. During recent years in the United States, between 12,000 and 56,000 people have died annually from the flu and its complications, particularly pneumonia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Actually, the CDC and many states bundle disease statistics for the flu together with pneumonia because the clinical diagnosis of influenza on an individual basis is often difficult. This makes it difficult to determine just how dangerous the flu is.

Vial of Influenza Virus Vaccine Connaught Laboratories 1957
Vial of Influenza Virus Vaccine, Type A, Asian 57, Formalin-Inactivated, Connaught Laboratories, 1957. (Photo from Sanofi Pasteur Canada Archives)

Researchers first isolated the virus that causes flu from pigs in 1931, and from humans in 1933. Four types of the virus exist: A and B, which are responsible for seasonal flu epidemics in people; C, which is relatively rare, causes a mild respiratory illness, and is not thought to cause epidemics; and D, which primarily infects cattle and isn’t known to affect people. Influenza A virus also infects birds, swine, horses, and other animals, giving rise to the names popular for flue epidemics in recent years such as Swine Flu and Avian Flu. Influenza is a constantly evolving virus, mutating the properties of its H and N antigens. Due to these changes, acquiring immunity to a subtype such as H1N1 one year will not necessarily mean a person is immune to a slightly different virus in later years. This changing nature has made vaccination difficult, as scientists “guess” what strain to produce vaccines against in any given year. Some years, the vaccine has been less than 50% effective. Also, they have begun to package several vaccines together, to protect against different virus strains at the same time. Despite a quadrivalent flu vaccine in 2012 protecting against four different strains, the effectiveness is low. The 2004–2005 vaccine was only 10 percent effective in the United States, while the 2018–2019 flu vaccine was 29 percent effective against Influenza A and B and 44 percent effective in preventing influenza A (H1N1) viruses.


If you’re interested, you can read more about Medical Progress in 1962 at this Roadtrip-'62 ™ page. I’m not waiting around for a COVID vaccine but will be back on the road next week. That’s the real road, not the virtual road! This review has shown me that things were far worse in the past, but note that people still traveled and businesses did not shut down. Given the variety of viruses and history of vaccines, at some point you just have to take your chances. I hope you all stay well, whether you travel or stay home!

Bayer Aspirin ad from 1962 magazine)
Bayer Aspirin ad, focusing on cold and flu relief (Ad from 1962 magazine)

All photos by the author and Copyright © 2020, 2021 - Donald Dale Milne, except as noted.

All other content Copyright © 2020, 2021 - Donald Dale Milne.

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