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STEVE FLORES: My quick vaccine history filled with sugar cubes and the Jet Injector

Speaking of vaccines, have you ever noticed a scar on the upper left arm of people 50 years or older? Everyone that age or older has one. Everyone. Don’t believe me? Check the upper left arm of your great grandparents, parents, aunts or uncles.

For those of you not around between the 1950s and 1970s, let me introduce you to the Jet Injector. Back in the day, everyone received the smallpox vaccine. The vaccine was given by a Jet Injector and left behind a distinctive scar.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “The Jet Injector was used during mass-vaccination procedures. It was invented and refined by the United States Army for Center for Disease Control field use. When its trigger was pulled, pneumatic pressure, built up by operator's foot pump, shot vaccine into the patient's skin.” The injection was accompanied by a loud pop.

It used a high-pressure, narrow stream of fluid to penetrate the skin instead of a hypodermic needle, and yeah, left a scar. The Jet Injector looks like it could be one of the many gothic looking tools in the arsenal of weapons used by the alien human hunter from the 1987 science fiction movie “Predator.” Scary for children.

The creation of a smallpox vaccine was a major medical achievement. Smallpox had been a deadly unwanted companion of history. According to medical historians, there was a 30 percent mortality rate for those infected. Most agree smallpox unarguably shaped the course of human history by killing millions of people. The discovery of a vaccine in the late 18th century ranks among the greatest achievements in human history. In 1972, smallpox vaccines stopped being a part of routine vaccinations in the United States.

A scar on our upper left arm ... what a small price to pay for the global eradication of a scourge against humanity and for the future safety of our children. So all you young bucks, when you notice a scar on the left arm of us elderly people, if you feel so inclined, just say “Mucho thank you” and buy our breakfast at Denny’s restaurant.

The soon-to-arrive COVID-19 vaccine has drawn another emotional parallel for me.

Polio and sugar cubes.

In the early 1950s, before polio vaccines were available, polio outbreaks caused more than 15,000 cases of paralysis each year. History tells us that parents were scared to let their children go outside, travel and commerce between cities were sometimes restricted, and quarantines were imposed. Any of this sound familiar?

Polio mainly affected children under the age of 5. Some communities called it the “summer without children” because of the polio epidemic.

I don’t remember where I was or the year but I am guessing I was about 5 or 6 years old. It was 65 years ago but I do remember standing in line and seeing the pink sugar cubes lined up on a tray. What? No needles? No Predator weapon? No loud pop? No sore arm? A nun dressed in her heavy dark brown wool habit was passing the pick sugar cubes with the polio vaccine. Remember, I am a fabulist, but I had the sensation that she was floating as she handed each one of us a sugar cube. As we passed the dispensing tray, a team of nuns held our arm and watched to make sure we were letting it dissolve in our mouth. The nuns scared me more than the polio vaccine.

What a huge difference.

Polio was once one of the most feared diseases in the United States. In 1963, the number of polio cases fell rapidly to less than 100 in the 1960s and fewer than 10 in the 1970s. Thanks to the successful polio vaccination program, the United States has been polio-free since 1979. Medical experts say the polio virus is still a threat in some countries.

So here we are today. Waiting for the COVID-19 vaccine. I offer no social commentary, political perspective nor advocacy for or against. I am not an expert on polio, smallpox or COVID-19. I am an expert on how it has affected me.

A small scar on my arm to save my children ... show me the line to the vaccine.

Email contributing columnist Steve Flores at His work appears here every third Monday; the views expressed are his own.