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Salk Polio Vaccine Shortage

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Polio vaccinations were in full swing in the summer of 1955 in North Dakota. A team led by Dr. Jonas Salk at the University of Pittsburgh developed the vaccine after years of philanthropy through the March of Dimes. Polio was the most dreaded disease of its time, and could paralyze and even kill children. The public welcomed Salk’s vaccine with open arms.

North Dakota’s stocks of vaccine were initially delayed and later recalled amid manufacturing concerns. The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, which led the March of Dimes, made the shots available free of charge to all first- and second-graders. The federal government provided $134,000 to North Dakota to make the vaccine available to everyone 19 and younger and pregnant women. The Salk vaccine was given in a series of three injections.

In early summer of 1955, the vaccine rolled out across the prairie. Nearly 1,000 children were vaccinated at the first clinic in Bismarck. More than 220 children were vaccinated in a week in Emmons County. Ninety-nine children got their shots in Wing. After six weeks, first- and second-graders had been vaccinated in every county but one: Steele County, where the county health officer chose to delay the shots until fall.

Despite this the initial rollout, North Dakota faced a vaccine shortage. On this date in 1955, newspaper readers learned of a polio advisory committee of state and local health officials who met in Bismarck to discuss distribution of the short supply and pending federal legislation for allocating the vaccine.

Vaccinations picked up in the fall thanks to federal funds, but the vaccine shortage persisted into 1956. Eight months after the shots began, only one-third of eligible people had received their first vaccination.

To vaccinate more people, health officials discontinued the third round of shots, reasoning it was more important to ensure the first two rounds of shots, which provided 80 to 90 percent immunity.

1946 had seen a record number of 492 cases, but by 1955 the dreaded illness had faded to 63 cases, and in 1956 to only 39.

The Salk polio vaccine is mentioned in a poem from 1961 that honors a longtime doctor of Regent, North Dakota:

“Times go on, new scientific facts

Are proved upon and told

Among the new is the Salk vaccine --

Polio’s not the scare of old.”

Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura


The Bismarck Tribune. 1955, June 10. Page 9

The Bismarck Tribune. 1955, July 6. Page 13

The Hope Pioneer. 1955, July 7. Page 1

The Bismarck Tribune. 1955, July 9. Page 11

The Bismarck Tribune. 1955, July 14. Page 13

The Bismarck Tribune. 1955, July 20. Page 8

The Bismarck Tribune. 1955, July 25. Page 7

The Bismarck Tribune. 1955, July 26. Pages 1, 3

The Bismarck Tribune. 1955, July 27. Page 15

The Bismarck Tribune. 1955, August 2. Page 2

The Bismarck Tribune. 1955, August 11. Page 17

The Bismarck Tribune. 1955, August 15. Page 1

The Bismarck Tribune. 1955, December 29. Page 6

The Bismarck Tribune. 1956, February 2. Page 9

The Bismarck Tribune. 1956, April 27. Page 9

The Bismarck Tribune. 1956, December 24. Page 24

Fiftieth Anniversary Committee. (1961). Our fifty years: Regent, N.D. 1911-1961. N.p.

North Dakota State Department of Health. (1958). Thirty-fifth biennial report, July 1, 1956-June 30, 1958: Health in North Dakota. Bismarck Tribune: Bismarck, ND

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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