Weird History

The Tragic Yet Fascinating History Of The Polio Vaccine  

Noelle Talmon
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The polio vaccine changed lives in the mid-1950s, a decade during which thousands of children were devastated by the disease. At its height in 1952, the virus infected nearly 60,000 children in the United States. Thousands of these children were paralyzed, and over 3,000 of them died from the epidemic. Summer of that year was a particularly brutal period for the disease, which is generally spread through contact with human feces. Many towns closed swimming pools, and moviegoers were advised not to sit next to one another to prevent any spread of germs. While many people suffering from the disease never exhibited polio symptoms, those who were struck with paralytic polio were left no choice but to stay in hospitals on life support.

Thankfully, virologist Jonas Salk and his colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh invented a polio vaccine in 1952. In 1954, they tested their creation on a group of children in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; mass immunization would follow in 1955. The history of polio is heart-wrenching, as are the photos of both children and adults affected by the disease. Fortunately, the polio vaccine eventually eradicated the disease in America, a testament to the benefits of scientific progress in medicine. 

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Vaccinated Children Are 99% Protected From Polio
Vaccinated Children Are ... is listed (or ranked) 5 on the list The Tragic Yet Fascinating History Of The Polio Vaccine
Photo:  CDC Global/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Thanks to vaccinations, the Western Hemisphere eradicated polio in 1994. Only a few countries today experience outbreaks, such as Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In the United States, children generally receive the inactivated polio vaccine when they are two and four months old. They receive two additional inoculations before attending elementary school. Thanks to this procedure, 99 out of 100 children who get the vaccine are protected from the disease.

95% Of Polio Sufferers Show No Symptoms
95% Of Polio Sufferers S... is listed (or ranked) 6 on the list The Tragic Yet Fascinating History Of The Polio Vaccine
Photo: CDC/Charles Farmer/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Most polio victims show no sign of the disease – 95% are considered asymptomatic. The remaining five percent fall into three categories: abortive polio, non-paralytic polio, and paralytic polio.

Abortive polio is characterized by symptoms such as fever, tiredness, headache, sore throat, nausea, and diarrhea. Those who contract non-paralytic polio experience similar symptoms as those with abortive polio, though non-paralyzed sufferers also display neurological symptoms, including light sensitivity and stiffness in the neck.

The most excruciating type is paralytic polio, though cases are extremely rare. After experiencing virus-like symptoms, patients feel muscle pain and spasms. Most individuals recover completely, and less than two percent become paralyzed or experience muscle weakness. According to the CDC, polio caused paralysis in approximately one in 200 of those who contract it.

President Roosevelt And Mia Farrow Suffered From Polio
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Photo:  Margaret Suckley/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0

President Franklin D. Roosevelt contracted polio in 1921 at the age of 39. He was forced to use a wheelchair, though he tried to hide his paralysis from the public.

Actress Mia Farrow spent eight months in the hospital in the 1950s after contracting the disease and could only breathe with the assistance of an iron lung. Actors Alan Alda and Donald Sutherland; musicians Itzhak Perlman,  Neil Young, and Joni Mitchell; and New York City ballerina Tanaquil Le Clercq also suffered from the disease.