Sixty four years ago today, on 26 March, 1953, Dr. Jonas Salk announced his polio vaccine to the public. Polio, by the early 50s, attacked 58,000 people a year, with 1 in 200 contracting permanent paralysis. Polio killed about 3,000 Americans in 1952 alone. We’ve lost the cultural memory of these polio outbreaks – the disease was a scourge to the country, and any word of an outbreak sent parents into a panic as they essentially locked their kids in the house until it passed.
Fast forward to today, and the curse of polio has been eliminated across the planet. Worldwide, the annual number of polio cases has dropped from 350,000 in 1988 to 74 cases in 2015. Yes, 74 cases across the world.
Dr. Salk had worked for three years to develop the polio vaccine – about a year after making the public announcement, on 23 February 1954, the new polio vaccine was tested at Arsenal Elementary School and the Watson Home for Children in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Can you imagine doing that kind of testing today? But back in the 50s, with the fear of polio a part of every family in America, I’m sure every parent at those two schools was begging for the vaccine. A bit of a change from our current atmosphere with respect to vaccines.
By 1955, the clinical trials provided strong evidence that the polio vaccine was both safe and effective, and mass vaccinations of American schoolchildren followed. Despite some claims of anti-vaccine activists, the result of the mass immunization effort resulted in an immediate reduction in new cases polio, with concomitant drops in paralysis and death.
Dr. Jonas Salk was considered an American hero. He was treated like a celebrity, not unlike athletes or pop stars of today. He would go out to dinner at a restaurant, and dozens of people would chat with Dr. Salk and thank him for his efforts. I can’t imagine a scientist today receiving such honors from the public.
Salk’s method was to kill (or attenuate) the polio virus, then inject them into a patient. The patient’s own immune system would then develop antibodies to the dead virus, preventing future infection by live viruses. Salk’s first test subjects were patients who had already had polio, and then himself and his family – his belief in the safety and effectiveness of the polio vaccine was that profound.
His research into the polio vaccine was funded by grants from private and public institutions – as a result, Dr. Salk gave away the license to the vaccine for anyone to produce, after it was fully tested.
Here’s a news report from the day that Dr. Salk announced the vaccine:
By losing our shared memories of diseases like polio, mumps, diphtheria, and many others, many of us have been lulled into a false sense of security about vaccine preventable diseases. We think that somehow our children are superior to the children of 50 years ago, when there’s really no evidence of that. Our children would succumb to these diseases in just the same rate.
You might think that we have better medicines to treat these diseases, but in some cases we don’t. Once polio takes a hold of a young child, the risk of paralysis and death skyrockets compared to children who don’t have polio. If we eliminated all of the vaccines, the diseases that would raves our country would overwhelm our healthcare system in unimaginable ways.
When I was a child, I lined up to get our vaccines at the age they were required – in school. The school nurse would gather all the 7th graders, and we’d get our polio shots or whatever was required for that grade. Only a couple of kids didn’t get them, and it was because they cried when they saw the needle. It’s too bad that we don’t back to a system where the school took care of the kids health like that.
Dr. Salk is a hero. He gave us a vaccine that saved an unimaginable number of lives all across the world. Many other vaccines have done the same. Don’t forget that.
The polio vaccine saved lives. And we can show it.