Today in 1954, the first trials for the Salk polio vaccine were conducted. The field trials vaccinated 1.8 million kids, beginning with children from Virginia’s Franklin Sherman Elementary School in McLean. The trials were conducted with a then-innovative double blind protocol whereby neither the subjects nor the people giving the shots knew whether the syringes contained vaccine or placebo serum. By April of the next year, science was confident that the polio vaccine was safe and effective. It was administered almost universally to children across the country and polio was virtually eliminated in the Western Hemisphere shortly thereafter.
The polio virus has been with us from very early in our history. People have suffered from it since prehistoric times. It commonly afflicts children, and the symptoms include partial or total paralysis. In the early 20th century, polio was a serious problem, verging on an epidemic. At the time, the most effective known treatment was to place polio patients in “iron lungs,” massive pressurized chambers that helped them breathe through respiratory paralysis.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was one of the most famous people to suffer from polio. He contracted the virus when he was 39, in 1921. He was rendered immobile below the waist and, while successfully hiding it from the nation for a time, was constrained to a wheelchair and leg braces until he died. FDR helped found the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis in 1938. The organization eventually renamed itself as the March of Dimes. The NFIP’s funding was instrumental in the development and testing of the Salk vaccine.
Jonas Salk developed the inactive polio vaccine in 1952, while working at the University of Pittsburgh. The subsequent field trials of the vaccine were, at the time, the largest medical trial in American history. The testing was overseen by Dr. Thomas Francis, Jr, a former colleague of Salk’s at the University of Michigan.
Salk’s vaccine was later replaced by the oral polio vaccine developed by the Polish doctor Albert Sabin. The oral vaccine was less expensive and easier to administer, especially to children, than the injected vaccine. The oral vaccine came into use during the early 60’s and its use spread around the world.
Although the vaccine has reduced polio to the status of a rarity for most of the planet, there are still areas, mostly in Africa and Asia, where the disease persists. Unfortunately, there is no known cure for polio. Polio, however, is still nowhere near as deadly as malaria, one of the most common causes of death worldwide.