Polio vaccine saves lives
Dan Zalewski III
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the invention of the oral polio vaccine.
Starting at the beginning of the 1900s, the infectious disease poliomyelitis, more commonly known as polio, began appearing throughout North America and Europe as a pandemic level disease.
By the 1950s, the disease caused widespread panic as incidences of polio infection shifted to infants and children under the age of ten. Children were not only more susceptible to the contracting the disease, but also had a higher risk of developing paralysis.
In 1952 the polio epidemic had 58,000 cases of infection. Of those infected, over 3,000 died and another 21,000 were left with some sort of minor paralysis.
Doctors combatted the disease with the greatest medical technology of the day. Many hospitals did not have access to an iron lung, but those that did were able to assist patients who could not breathe because of the disease.
As a result of the polio epidemic, respiratory centers were created to treat patients. These centers are the direct origin of what we now know as the intensive care unit or ICU.
Of all the medical advancements that came from the polio epidemic of the 1950s, the largest breakthrough in scientific advancement came from the invention of the polio vaccine.
As the epidemic gripped the world, a group of scientists led by Albert Sabin of Russia and Jonas Salk of Pittsburgh started work on a vaccine to prevent the spreading of the disease.
The first vaccine was given via injection. One of Sabin’s major contribution was to make the vaccine oral, thus easier to take.
The first attempt at a vaccine solution was released for testing in 1955. The first pass was effective at preventing the side effects of the disease but did little to prevent the infection itself.
In the later half of the 1950s, Sabin and his team perfected that first attempt until the vaccine was proven to be very safe and effective.
The vaccine was tested by millions of people living in Europe and Mexico. Once testing concluded, the first mass production began and the vaccine was released for use in the United States in April of 1960.
Polio survivors are numerous around the world. Many have gone on to live very successful lives. Survivors include former head coach of the Minnesota Vikings, Bud Grant, producer and screenwriter of television show, the Office, Ash Atalla, and director and screenwriter of the Godfather movies, Francis Ford Coppola.
Coppola suffered from polio for a year when he was a child. “When I was nine I was confined to a room for over a year with polio, and because polio is a child’s illness, they kept every other kid away from me. I remember being pinned to this bed, and longing for friends and company.”