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Polio Vaccinations Expand

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When the Salk polio vaccine rolled out in North Dakota in 1955, children ages 5 to 9 and pregnant women were given top priority. Parents welcomed the vaccine with open arms. Polio could paralyze and even kill, and young children were the most vulnerable. The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, which led the March of Dimes for vaccine research and patient care, provided the vaccine free of charge for first- and second-graders. Salk’s vaccine came in a series of three shots. By the end of 1955, 59 percent of those children in North Dakota were vaccinated. None contracted polio.

On this date in 1955, North Dakota's Health Department expanded the age group of people eligible for the vaccinations. Everyone 19 and younger could get the shots. The federal government provided $134,000 to North Dakota for these vaccinations. The expanded eligibility was thought to encourage parents to bring in all of their children at one time to be vaccinated. More than 23,000 shots were given that October and November.

But due to a vaccine shortage, only one-third of eligible people had had their first vaccination eight months after polio shots began in the state. Health officials discontinued a third round of the shots so they could allocate more vaccine for first and second shots. Nevertheless, the end of polio had begun. Cases dropped dramatically year after year. An oral polio vaccine developed by Dr. Albert Sabin replaced Salk's shot in 1962, and by 1965, North Dakotans had stomped out polio, with the exception of at least two cases in the 1970s.

In 1975, the Legislature passed a school immunization law to address several diseases, including polio. The law came after decades of disease outbreaks among children amid lax vaccination rates. As low as 46 percent of students were fully vaccinated for polio. The Health Department wanted at least 90 percent vaccinated to prevent diseases from re-emerging. The bill’s sponsor, Republican Representative Aloha Eagles of Fargo, said: “In my generation we all immunized our babies without a second thought, because we were only too much aware of the horrors of the polio epidemics. But most of today’s young parents know nothing about those outbreaks and the human tragedies they caused.”

Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura


The Bismarck Tribune. 1955, October 11. Page 19

The Bismarck Tribune. 1955, October 15. Page 13

The Bismarck Tribune. 1955, November 23. Page 13

The Bismarck Tribune. 1955, December 29. Page 6

The Bismarck Tribune. 1956, February 2. Page 9

The Bismarck Tribune. 1975, February 24. Page 28

The Bismarck Tribune. 1975, June 16. Page 1

The Bismarck Tribune. 1974, September 10. Pages 1, 2

The Bismarck Tribune. 1977, June 15. Page 2

North Dakota State Department of Health. (1956). Thirty-fourth biennial report July 1, 1954 – June 30, 1956. North Dakota State Department of Health: 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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