May 08, 2014

For years, the fight against polio was considered one of the most successful vaccination campaigns of all time. But now, the reappearance of the disease in countries like Pakistan, Syria, and Cameroon has thrown that success into jeopardy.  How was polio wiped out the first time around?

In the years after WWII, America had two great fears: communism, and polio. In 1952 alone, over 58,000 Americans had been infected by the disease (polio, that is...not communism.) In response, the nation sprung into action to attack the problem, treating it like a full-fledged war. As historian Jane Smith described it: “People worked on the polio vaccine like it was the Normandy invasion.”

One of those people was a young researcher at the University of Michigan named Jonas Salk. Salk had cut his teeth in immunology with the U.S. Army during World War II, working on a vaccine against influenza. 

Unlike most vaccines of the day, Salk's had been a “killed” vaccine, meaning he had taken the pathogen, inactivated it so it could no longer reproduce, and then injected those into a healthy person’s body. (If you’ve been vaccinated for chickenpox or measles, on the other hand, congrats – those are "live" vaccines, meaning you’ve had a live version of virus inside of you.)

Salk thought the same technique could be applied to fight polio, and began work on an early prototype of a vaccine. 

Salk's research was funded by the March of Dimes, an organization founded by one of the most famous victims of the disease - President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself. The March coordinated an aggressive marketing campaign to get Americans to donate to the cause. Here’s a familiar face they enlisted to get the word out:

The campaign was so successful, in fact, that a Gallup poll from 1954 reported that the number of Americans who knew about the polio trial was greater than the number who could remember the full name of the sitting President, Dwight Eisenhower. Oops.

Eventually, Salk tried his vaccine out on humans – specifically, on his own wife and children (Happy Mother’s Day!) A full-blown, massive trial on almost two million American schoolchildren followed. The nation waited with bated breath, and then heaved a collective sigh of relief. On April 12, 1955, it was announced that the vaccine had worked.

Here’s a clipping from April 1955 edition of The Manchester Guardian, laden (of course) with Cold War imagery so characteristic of the times:

The biggest news story of many a peace-time year broke this week on the tenth anniversary of Roosevelt's death. Nothing short of the overthrow of the Communist regime in the Soviet Union could bring such rejoicing to the hearths and homes of America as the historic announcement last Tuesday that the 166-year war against paralytic poliomyelitis is almost certainly at an end.

The proclamation that the 166-year war on polio was at an end was bold, to be sure, but it held true (or practically true) for decades. In 2012, the disease was considered to be almost completely eradicated. But if recent news is any indication, the disease may be rearing its ugly head once again.

Still curious?

  • Salk wasn’t the only person working on a polio vaccine - at the same time, scientist Albert Bruce Sabin was testing a live vaccine for polio overseas in the Soviet Union. Read about the enduring debate between live and killed versions of the polio vaccine here.
  • When asked if he was going to patent his vaccine, Salk declined and retorted, "Could you patent the sun?" For more on that decision, see this article, which also contains the priceless line: “While ingenious, moving puss from one person to another would not entitle Jenner to a patent in modern America." Americans jaded.

global health, polio, Sci and Tech, Body and Mind, vaccines, health care, health

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