Little Bits of History

Polio Vaccine

Posted in History by patriciahysell on April 12, 2013
Jonas Salk and the life saving vaccine

Jonas Salk and the life saving vaccine

April 12, 1955: A killer is apprehended when a new vaccine created by Jonas Salk is approved. Poliomyelitis had been around for about 5,000 years. The virus attacks motor nerves in the spinal column. This can result in an arm or leg becoming paralyzed. In severe cases, the respiratory system can be attacked, leading to death. In earlier times, the disease struck sporadically with infants suffering the most cases. It is therefore also called Infantile Paralysis.

Counter intuitively, improved sanitation led to epidemic outbreaks. Previously, the disease struck newborns who were still protected by their mothers’ antibodies and thus they developed their own lifelong antibodies. When the disease struck at an older age, the babies were no longer under protection from maternal antibodies. The virus struck in ever increasing numbers. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a wheelchair-bound polio patient, founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, now called the March of Dimes. The race was on to find a way to stop this killer.

There are two polio vaccines used worldwide. A vaccine does not cure a disease but rather it establishes or improves natural immunity and thus prevents a particular disease. Edward Jenner noticed milkmaids who routinely suffered from cowpox had an immunity to deadly smallpox. The use of a weaker disease to forestall a more serious one was born. Today there are successful vaccines against both viral and bacterial diseases, but none against parasitic ones. Vaccines are made from dead or inactivated organisms or from purified products made from them.

Jonas Salk began working toward a polio vaccine in 1947. The first successful tests came in 1952. In 1954, an unprecedented trial was held with 2 million children treated using a double-blind testing method. The test was successful. The Salk vaccine is given in two intramuscular injections one month apart and boosters are needed every 5 years. Albert Sabin produced an oral polio vaccine in 1957. The oral form is given in 3 doses before age 2 and needs no boosters unless exposed to the disease or traveling to infective regions. Polio has been eradicated from the Americas, 36 Western Pacific countries, and Europe. There were 1,310 cases worldwide in 2007.

“The polio-eradication initiative has shown the world that even in the poorest countries, widespread and debilitating disease can be defeated.” – Patty Stonesifer

“Over a year has passed since the last sample of polio was found here. We can safely say that we have successfully eradicated polio in Egypt.” – Faten Kamel

“When I worked on the polio vaccine, I had a theory. I guided each [experiment] by imagining myself in the phenomenon in which I was interested. The intuitive realm . . . the realm of the imagination guides my thinking.” – Jonas Salk

“Nature [is] that lovely lady to whom we owe polio, leprosy, smallpox, syphilis, tuberculosis, cancer.” – Stanley N. Cohen

This article first appeared at in 2010. Editor’s update: The March of Dimes was created on January 3, 1938 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt with the objective of combating polio. It is a not-for-profit organization and their focus changed over time. Today, their objectives are to prevent birth defects, premature birth, and infant mortality. It was founded in White Plains, New York and today there are 51 chapters across the US. The name March of Dimes was coined by vaudeville star Eddie Cantor in the late 1930s. However, the name was not officially changed until 1976 when it became the March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation. Another name change came in 2007 and now it is the March of Dimes Foundation. Today, Jennifer L Howse is the President of the Foundation.

Also on this day: Jerry Did Good – In 1996 Yahoo! goes public.
Union Jack – In 1606, Great Britain adopted a new flag.
The Columbus of the Cosmos – In 1961, Yuri Gagarin was the first human to go into space.