Different time, same message: Health officials follow polio playbook in convincing public vaccines are safe

Convincing the public to trust new vaccines is a challenge that health officials have conquered several times in the past.

But the new COVID-19 vaccines could be the biggest test yet.

This month the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave Emergency Use Authorization to Pfizer and Moderna to begin rolling out the first coronavirus vaccines across the country. Researchers developed the vaccine in record time — in under a year.

But as the vaccines arrive in communities, recent studies have shown only about 60 percent of the population trusts the vaccine and is willing to take it.

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“We do not know if there are more people today resisting vaccines, however, we do know that we hear quite a bit more from them,” said Dr. Susan Jones, who studies the history of diseases at the University of Minnesota.

In the mid-1950s when the polio vaccine was rolled out, it was met with an incredible amount of fanfare. But officials still ran a campaign to convince families it was safe.

“Actually, I believe that the polio vaccine rollout was accompanied by a somewhat better public education campaign than the COVID-19 vaccine has been,” Jones said.

Despite that campaign, there still was some resistance. According to research in the late 50s, families that stayed away from the vaccine cited factors ranging from not believing in the science, to not believing the risk of polio was great enough.

Larry Kohout of Edina was just 13-years-old when he contracted polio before the vaccine was developed. He spent eight months in the hospital and describes the moment the polio vaccine rolled out as “a stampede”

“Everybody was just rolling up their sleeves — I want the vaccine,” he said. “I think we are a society that is just much less trusting across the board.”

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Kohout, who now relies on a wheelchair to get around and a ventilator to breathe, runs a post-polio support group in Minnesota to help other survivors cope with the life-long effects of the illness.

He only wishes the vaccine had come earlier.

“Look at me. If I had had the vaccine, I’d look like you," he said. "I don’t."