On February 23, 1954, Dr. Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine was administered to the children from the Arsenal Elementary School in Pittsburgh, USA, kicking off a trial run of mass inoculations across the nation. By March that year newspapers reported the first major success in polio vaccination reported in history.
For many centuries Poliomyelitis or Polio had plagued mankind. Records of the disease exist from as far back as 1400 BC. It is a viral infection that affects the central nervous system, nerves, spine leaving the patient’s muscles weak and causing paralysis or even death. Though largely affecting children, polio is also known to affect adults and is a highly contagious disease. Till about the 1800s, Polio remained relatively uncommon while other diseases such as influenza, diphtheria, typhoid, and tuberculosis ruled the roost. By the start of the 20th century, however, Polio started to make its presence felt and by mid-century, polio became a fearful disease, dreaded by parents in all parts of the world. Polio epidemic often came in waves, immaterial of the socio-economic stature of the country. The first Polio epidemic swept the US in 1894. It was in 1908 that the Polio virus was identified as the cause of the disease. In 1916, a massive polio epidemic wrecked New York City and within a few years. In 1921, Polio claimed its most famous victim – the young politician Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the future President of the United States. The disease affected him severely and left his legs paralyzed.
Despite the rapid advances made in the field of healthcare and medicine in the earlier part of the 20th century, many parts of the world were beleaguered by Polio attacks. Improving sanitation, hygiene, and standards of living while reducing outbreaks in children, did nothing to assuage the fears of a Polio attack among adults – this being the more severe of infections. Jonas Salk, a researcher at the University of Michigan became very interested in the vaccinations of diseases such as influenza. He identified that the basic principles of creating a vaccine were the same for all diseases – when the human body is exposed to a small amount of any disease-causing virus, it produces antibodies or the chemicals that are required to combat and resist the virus, ultimately destroying it. Later, when faced by a full-blown attack of the disease virus, the body contains the antibodies to fight it, thus preventing an outbreak of the disease.
Dr. Salk became head of the Virus Research Lab at the University of Pittsburgh in 1947. Towards the late 1940s, the March of Dimes, an organization President Roosevelt had supported to help in the battle against polio, enlisted Dr. Jonas Salk to help in finding an effective vaccine. Salk discovered that polio had about 125 strains which can be classified into three basic types. Salk attempted to discover a potent vaccine that would resist all three types. He discovered that chemical ‘formalin’ could be used to deactivate the virus which caused polio. These deactivated viruses formed an effective vaccine without the risk of infection. Some of the major challenges faced by Salk were the growth of the virus on tissue scraps without the need for an organism – a Harvard research team solved this challenge in 1948 with the introduction of penicillin to ensure that tissue scraps used in research are not infected by bacteria.
Starting February 23, 1954, Salk allowed the testing of his vaccine at Arsenal Elementary School and the Watson Home for Children in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The test was led by Thomas Francis in what came to become the largest medical experiment in history called Francis Field Trial. Eventually 1.8 million children in 44 American states came to be involved in the tests. The resounding success of the field trial was announced April 12, 1955. Salk’s vaccine got its officially licensed in 1955. A massive campaign against the disease was launched in the US and in many parts of the world. Over 90 nations were using the vaccine by the end of the decade. By 1961, the US reported only 161 cases of Polio. Later, an orally administered type of the Polio vaccine was discovered by Albert Sabin and licensed in 1962. It became more widely used and popular as it was inexpensive. This vaccine is used by most developing nations in their endeavor to eradicate Polio.
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