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What Happened After The Polio Vaccine Was Developed?

April 14, 2020 8.0k views12 items

Polio reached its apex in the United States in 1952, with roughly 58,000 new cases of the disease reported. People spent their summers, also called "Polio Season," hiding inside, staying away from public swimming pools, movie theaters, and other communal spaces. Parents were so fearful of polio that they even purchased Infantile Paralysis insurance, the name for polio at the time, to protect themselves and their children.

As a disease that afflicted thousands of children, adolescents, and adults each year, polio was devastating and incurable. Polio led to paralysis and, in many cases, death. With no cure available, vaccination was the only real hope.

Polio vaccine history includes some noteworthy names. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Drs. Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin were essential in the original polio vaccines, with countless other researchers, volunteers, and supporters coming together to find relief from the disease. The story of the polio vaccine - its origin, how it was tested, its distribution, and its ultimate success - provides insight into how to combat a pandemic. 

While polio-stricken children struggled to survive, scientists worked to develop a polio vaccine. Once identified, collective action on the part of governments, private citizens, and the healthcare community alike facilitated the widespread distribution of the polio vaccine, ultimately reducing instances of the disease exponentially by the end of the century. 

  • Jonas Salk Announced His Successful Vaccine Test On A CBS Radio Broadcast In March 1953

    During the first half of the 20th century, repeated outbreaks of poliomyelitis, more commonly known as polio, paralyzed tens of thousands of individuals in the United States and around the world. Because polio was particularly prevalent in children, "infantile paralysis" became an annual scourge, especially during the summer months when cases of the disease skyrocketed. As researchers worked to understand the cause of polio - later determined to be brought on by three distinct strains of poliovirus - efforts to combat the disease prompted several attempts at a vaccine. 

    In 1935, two doctors produced vaccines that proved to be deadly. In New York, Dr. Maurice Brodie introduced a killed form of the virus to chimpanzees, himself, and children, ultimately failing to provide immunity to combat the disease with his efforts. Dr. John Kolmer in Philadelphia used a weakened form of the poliovirus, again administering it to monkeys, himself, his sons, and over 10,000 children. His vaccine caused at least a dozen new cases of polio, including nine fatal cases. 

    By the late 1940s, Dr. Jonas Salk and a team of researchers at the University of Pittsburgh were building upon the efforts of their peers, notably John Enders, Frederick Robbins, and Thomas Weller at Harvard University. Enders, Robbins, and Weller successfully grew cultures of the poliovirus, allowing Salk to later mass-produce his vaccine. 

    After successful trials on small groups of human subjects in 1952 - the same year that cases of polio in the United States peaked at almost 60,000 cases in children - Salk was headed towards larger-scale treatment. The following year, Salk made the success of his vaccine known to colleagues, later announcing it to the general public. In a nationwide radio statement on CBS on March 26, 1953, Salk stated, "the amount of antibody induced by vaccination compares favorably with that which develops after natural infection...these studies provide justification for optimism, and it does appear that the approach in these investigations may lead to the desired objective."

    He cautioned the audience, however, "this has not yet been accomplished," but a hopeful public anxiously awaited his vaccine. 

  • In 1954, More Than 1.8 Million Schoolchildren Participated In A National Clinical Trial, And Were Injected With Either The Vaccine Or A Placebo
    Photo: March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    In 1954, More Than 1.8 Million Schoolchildren Participated In A National Clinical Trial, And Were Injected With Either The Vaccine Or A Placebo

    In the immediate aftermath of his announcement, Jonas Salk published his preliminary findings in the Journal of the American Medical Association; vaccinated himself, his wife, and his children; and continued to refine his formula. 

    When Salk first told the Immunization Committee of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (NFIP) about his promising findings in January 1953, pressure began to mount for field trials. There were skeptics, including John Enders from Harvard, but according to Harry Weaver, the director of research at the Foundation, "The practice of medicine is based on calculated risk .... If [we wait until more] research is carried out, large numbers of human beings will develop poliomyelitis who might have been prevented from doing so."

    Once methodology and protocol for the trials - there were two carried out simultaneously, one observed control trial and one placebo-controlled trial - were determined, groups from around the United States, Canada, and Finland were set to participate. The observed control trail included more than 1 million 1st, 2nd, and 3rd graders, with the 2nd graders given the vaccine. The smaller placebo-controlled trial involved 750,000 children, with half given the vaccine and half given a placebo. Collectively, 1.8 million children participate in the 1954 field trials.

    The entire process was overseen by Dr. Thomas Francis, Jr, from the University of Michigan, a mentor to Salk who was appointed by the NFIP.

    The first child who took part in the trial, called a Polio Pioneer, was Randall Kerr from McClean, Virginia. Kerr proudly proclaimed, "I could hardly feel it!"  

  • The National Trial Was Mostly Funded By The ‘March Of Dimes’ Charity Organization, Which Was Founded By FDR

    While carrying out his research at the University of Pittsburgh, Jonas Salk was funded by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (NFIP), now known as the March of Dimes. Founded by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938, the NFIP brought together researchers, volunteers, and educators to combat polio, a disease that Roosevelt himself contracted at age 39

    The NFIP was designed to be a non-partisan organization, one that grew local chapters around the United States. An initial call for donations was sent out over radio waves in January 1938, days before President Roosevelt's Birthday Ball. When comedian Eddie Cantor made his pitch to the American public, he said:

    The March of Dimes will enable all persons, even the children, to show our President that they are with him in this battle against this disease. Nearly everyone can send in a dime, or several dimes. However, it takes only ten dimes to make a dollar and if a million people send only one dime, the total will be $100,000.

    Cantor's plea worked, with more than 2,680,000 dimes sent to the White House.

    While the name March of Dimes wasn't formally adopted until 1979, the power of the dime helped raise funds that could be allocated to polio research and the 1954 Field Trials. The NFIP paid for the trials that took place in"211 counties in 44 states" and ended up costing approximately $7.5 million.

  • The Vaccine Was Deemed To Be Effective, And A National Inoculation Campaign Was Ramped Up In 1955
    Photo: March of Dimes / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Vaccine Was Deemed To Be Effective, And A National Inoculation Campaign Was Ramped Up In 1955

    The NFIP released the results of the 1954 Field Trials in 1955, indicating that the Salk's vaccine was 80% to 90% effective against polio. Salk acknowledged that the vaccine had flaws, but remarked that continued work with a new vaccine, "may lead to 100 percent protection from paralysis."

    The success of the trials prompted the Laboratory of Biologic Control department of the federal government to license the vaccine to pharmaceutical companies in the United States. Head of the Laboratory of Biologic Control, William Workman, met with an advisory committee to review manufacturing protocols of five different companies - Eli Lilly, Parke-Davis, Pitman-Moore, Wyeth, and Cutter - ultimately extending licenses to each one. 

    During the spring of 1955, 4,844,000 vaccinations were administered to children across the United States.