On February 23, 1954, the polio vaccine, developed by Jonas Salk, commenced clinical testing at Arsenal Elementary School and the Watson Home for Children in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Five thousand children in those two schools were vaccinated against polio, which was the start of a massive clinical trial that would eventually involve 1.8 million children, in 44 states from Maine to California (see Understanding Viruses).
Just before the introduction of the vaccine in the mid-50’s, regular polio outbreaks occurred everywhere, even developed countries like the USA and northern Europe. The virus is transmitted through fecal matter, so swimming pools, improper sanitation (like washing after using the bathroom), babies diapers and other sources moved the virus. Almost all of the transmission was through casual contact, not improper sanitation (at least since the advent of a modern sanitation system in the USA starting in the late 1920’s). About 95% of individuals infected are asymptomatic (pdf), so they appear healthy but are shedding viruses to infect other people.
Of the 5% who are symptomatic, about 10% of them eventually progress to the paralytic version of the disease. In other words, approximately 0.5% of those infected were paralyzed. One of the tropes of the anti-science/anti-vaccine world is that this is a small number. Except it isn’t. Out of 5 million children who might be infected every, approximately 25,000 children a year might progress to the paralytic version of the disease, and some of them would die. That would be a massive stress to our current healthcare system, our public schools, with many consequences to our world. Big Iron Lung might be happy.
If one takes a look at what the polio vaccine has done worldwide, the numbers are even more staggering. The number of worldwide polio cases has fallen from an estimated 350,000 in 1988 to fewer than 223 in 2012—a decline of more than 99% in reported cases. Think of all of the children no longer condemned to machines to allow them to breathe or braces to allow them to walk. All because of a vaccine that was first used just 60 years ago.
We live in a wonderful world of health. We live healthier and more productive lives from all of the advances in modern healthcare, but one advance rules above them all–vaccines. I know that almost all antivaccination cultists would drop their lies and have their children protected against these diseases if they knew how horrifying the diseases were. I was born after vaccines were prevalent, but there were many classmates who had various levels of paralytic disease from polio. That was sad that they were born on the cusp of a prevention.
Thank you Jonas Salk. You were a good man, and you saved lives. And we can actually count how many lives you saved. Let’s celebrate what you did for humanity.
- Aylward RB. Eradicating polio: today’s challenges and tomorrow’s legacy. Ann Trop Med Parasitol. 2006 Jul-Sep;100(5-6):401-13. Review. PubMed PMID: 16899145.
- van Panhuis WG, Grefenstette J, Jung SY, Chok NS, Cross A, Eng H, Lee BY, Zadorozhny V, Brown S, Cummings D, Burke DS. Contagious diseases in the United States from 1888 to the present. N Engl J Med. 2013 Nov 28;369(22):2152-8. doi: 10.1056/NEJMms1215400. PubMed PMID: 24283231.