Jonas Edward Salk was an American medical researcher and virologist. He discovered and developed one of the first successful polio vaccines. Until 1955, when the Salk vaccine was introduced, polio was considered one of the most frightening public health problems in the world. In the postwar United States, annual epidemics were increasingly devastating.
The 1952 U.S. epidemic was the worst outbreak in the nation’s history. Of nearly 58,000 cases reported that year, 3,145 people died and 21,269 were left with mild to disabling paralysis, with most of its victims being children. The “public reaction was to a plague,” said historian Bill O’Neal. Citizens of urban areas were terrified every summer when this frightful visitor returned.” According to a 2009 PBS documentary, “Apart from the atomic bomb, America’s greatest fear was polio.”
As a result, scientists were in a frantic race to find a way to prevent or cure the disease. In 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the world’s most recognized victim of the disease, founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (known as March of Dimes Foundation since 2007), an organization that would fund the development of a vaccine.
March of Dimes poster circa 1957
That same year, the first March of Dimes fundraising program was set up, with radio networks offering free 30-second slots for promotion. Listeners were asked to send in a dime and the White House received 2,680,000 letters within days.
As the fear of polio increased each year, funds to combat it increased from $1.8 million to $67 million by 1955. Research continued during those years, but everything scientists believed about polio at first was wrong, which lead them down many blind alleys–furthermore, most researchers were experimenting with highly dangerous ‘live’ vaccines. In one test, six children were killed and three left crippled.
This was the situation when young Jonas Salk, a medical doctor in charge of a virology laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh, decided to use the safer ‘killed’ virus. After successful tests on laboratory animals, it next had to be tested on human beings. On July 2, 1952, assisted by the staff at the D.T. Watson Home for Crippled Children, Jonas Salk injected 43 children with his killed-virus vaccine. A few weeks after the Watson tests, Salk injected children at the Polk State School for the retarded and feeble-minded. In November 1953, at a conference in New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, he said, “I will be personally responsible for the vaccine.” He announced that his wife and three sons had been among the first volunteers to be inoculated with his vaccine. Jonas Salk tested the vaccine on about one million children, who were known as the polio pioneers. This testing started in 1954, and the vaccine was announced as safe on April 12, 1955.
According to medical author Paul Offit, “more Americans had participated in the funding, development, and testing of the polio vaccine than had participated in the nomination and election of the president.” At least 100 million people contributed to the March of Dimes and seven million had donated their time and labor, including fund-raisers, committee workers, and volunteers at clinics and record centers.
Salk in 1955 at the University of Pittsburgh
In 1988, numerous international medical organizations launched a campaign to eradicate polio globally, as had been successfully done for smallpox. By 2003, polio had been eradicated in all but a few countries, among them Afghanistan, India, Nigeria, and Pakistan. However, mullahs in northern Nigeria began to oppose the vaccination program, claiming that it was a plot to spread AIDS and sterility, and prevented any vaccination. Polio cases in Nigeria tripled over the next three years.
Environmental scientist Lester Brown speculates that Nigerian Muslims may have spread the disease to Muslims of other polio-free countries during their annual pilgrimage to Mecca, in Saudi Arabia. With these same fears, Saudi Arabian officials imposed a polio vaccination requirement on certain visitors.
In Pakistan in 2007, opposition was violent to vaccinations in the Northwest Frontier Province, where a doctor and a health worker in the polio eradication program were killed. Since then, the Taliban has blocked all vaccinations in the Swat Valley of Pakistan. As a result, Pakistan was the only country in 2010 to record an increase in cases of polio, according to the WHO, along with having the highest incidence of polio in the world. Meanwhile, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has spent $1.5 billion, plans to spend another $1.8 billion through 2018 to help eradicate the virus.(from Wikipedia)