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. 

In The 1950s, Polio Seemed Unstoppable
In The 1950s, Polio Seemed Uns... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list The Tragic Yet Fascinating History Of The Polio Vaccine
Photo:  Otis Historical Archives National Museum of Health and Medicine/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Few things frightened parents in the early 20th century more than polio. Beginning with its first outbreak in Vermont in 1894 – in which 132 people contracted the disease – polio would cyclically reoccur, and, for decades, a solution seemed out of reach.

Children tended to contract the disease during the summer, and, every few years, a polio epidemic would spread throughout a town. The majority of those infected would recover from the disease, but others were not so fortunate – some would be temporarily paralyzed, others were left permanently disabled, and still others perished. 

The Only Prevention For Polio Is Vaccination
The Only Prevention For Polio ... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list The Tragic Yet Fascinating History Of The Polio Vaccine
Photo: יצחק רוט/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.5

Because there is no known cure for polio, the best way to avoid the disease is prevention through vaccination. 

Sufferers with muscle impairments may take drugs or undergo special therapy to counteract the symptoms. Those few who are paralyzed by the disease may require a machine to help them breathe if the infection affects their throat and chest muscles. If they don't use artificial breathing support, sometimes known as an "iron lung," the infection can prove fatal.

Polio Is Highly Contagious And Spreads Through Sneezing, Coughing, And Feces
Polio Is Highly Contagious And... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list The Tragic Yet Fascinating History Of The Polio Vaccine
Photo: Sophies Minde/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

The poliovirus is highly contagious and resides in a person's throat and intestines. A person catches the disease through his or her mouth and passes it on to others through fecal matter, sneezing, and coughing. If a person has remnants of infected feces on his hands, for example, and touches his mouth, he can contract the disease.

Because of the disease's extremely contagious nature, infection was common among children. Polio can also spread through objects, such as toys. If a child plays with a contaminated toy, she can contract the virus. Infected people can spread the disease immediately – even those without symptoms can pass it on.

Vaccines Stopped The Disease From Occurring Naturally
Vaccines Stopped The Disease F... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list The Tragic Yet Fascinating History Of The Polio Vaccine
Photo:  Wellcome Images/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 4.0

The first polio vaccines were administered to children at Arsenal Elementary School in Pittsburgh, PA, on February 23, 1954.

Once the vaccine was distributed to Americans, the number of people who contracted the disease dropped tremendously. In the early 1950s, approximately 20,000 paralytic cases were reported each year. By 1960, that number had dropped to 2,525. By 1965, there were only 61 cases of paralytic polio. Finally, in 1979, the United States witnessed its final cases of naturally occurring paralytic polio when a group of Amish people in the Midwest suffered an epidemic