Little Bits of History

 October 28

Posted in History by patriciahysell on October 28, 2017

1956: Elvis Presley gets a polio vaccine on national TV. Poliomyelitis, sometimes called polio or infantile paralysis, is an infectious disease caused by the poliovirus. The disease causes muscle weakness or even paralysis and can last for just hours to days. However, not everyone fully recovers and some are left with lasting deficits to the muscles affected. About 2-5% of children and 15-30% of adults who contract the disease die. The disease has been around since pre-history but the numbers have waxed and waned over time. In the early 20th century, there was a surge in the number of cases seen in the US. Since the disease is caused by a virus, antibiotics are not effective against it and instead, the best outcome comes from not ever getting infected. A search for a vaccine began in 1935 with disastrous results.

In 1950, there was an outbreak with 58,000 cases reported in the US and in 1955, another outbreak lead to 35,000 cases. Dr. Jonas Salk produced an injectable vaccine made up of killed polio virus. It was widely tested and found to be between 80 and 90% effective against this disease which left mostly children with lifelong crippling aftereffects. While many people did respond to the news and got small children vaccinated, older people – especially teens – were not getting the protection. There were a variety of reasons for this. Apathy was one since the name “infantile paralysis” left many older people unaware that they could still catch the virus. Another was cost, because to be adequately immune took three injections at a cost of $3-5 per each visit. The last major block to vaccination was the fear of shots.

Using teens themselves to help spread the word that their own peer group needed to be immunized was helpful. Public officials enlisted teen icons as a way to help. To that end, on this day Elvis Presley was vaccinated live on TV. He was in New York City to tape a guest appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, when he was approached by the New York City Health Department and they decided to launch a publicity stunt. It worked and the vaccination rate soared from 0.6% to over 80% in the next six months. While the event was only locally televised, it was covered in the national media which helped spread the word to even more of Elvis’s fan base.

Work on a better vaccine continued and in 1961, Albert Sabin’s attenuated (weakened) living virus oral vaccine came on the market. It was both cheaper to produce and easier to administer. In April 2012 the World Health Assembly declared it had completed the polio eradication program globally. The Americas were declared polio free in 1994 and the rest of the world joined in the hopeful status. Today, there are only two countries, Pakistan and Afghanistan, where there are still naturally spreading epidemics. These can, of course, then spread to neighboring regions via contagious transmission.

Childhood vaccines are one of the great triumphs of modern medicine. Indeed, parents whose children are vaccinated no longer have to worry about their child’s death or disability from whooping cough, polio, diphtheria, hepatitis, or a host of other infections. – Ezekiel Emanuel

Humans have always used our intelligence and creativity to improve our existence. After all, we invented the wheel, discovered how to make fire, invented the printing press and found a vaccine for polio. – Naveen Jain

When I was about 9, I had polio, and people were very frightened for their children, so you tended to be isolated. I was paralyzed for a while, so I watched television. – Francis Ford Coppola

Polio’s pretty special because once you get an eradication, you no longer have to spend money on it; it’s just there as a gift for the rest of time. – Bill Gates



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.