Today In History: Polio Vaccine Begins Trials
There was a time when polio was one of the most serious diseases posing a public health threat in the United States. Jonas Salk changed medical history forever with his vaccine, which began its first field trials today in 1954. The trials vaccinated 1.8 million kids, beginning with children from Virginia’s Franklin Sherman Elementary School in McLean.
The trials were administered with a double-blind protocol, ensuring that neither the patients nor the people giving the shots were aware of whether the syringes contained vaccine or placebo serum. By April of 1955, medical science was confident that the polio vaccine was safe and effective. It was rolled out on a grand scale, administered to children across the United States. Shortly thereafter, polio was virtually eliminated in the entire Western Hemisphere.
The polio virus is an ancient one, that has afflicted us since prehistoric times. Children are especially susceptible to it. Symptoms include partial or total paralysis. In the early 20th century, polio was a serious enough problem that it was considered a borderline epidemic. Before Salk’s vaccine, the only known effective treatment was to put polio patients in massive “iron lungs,” pressurized chambers that assisted them in breathing through their respiratory paralysis.
Salk developed the vaccine in 1952, while working at the University of Pittsburgh. The vaccine’s field trials were, at the time, the largest such trials in American history. They were overseen by a former colleague of Salk’s named Dr. Thomas Francis, Jr.
The injected vaccine was later replaced by the oral polio vaccine invented by a Polish doctor named Albert Sabin. The oral version was cheaper and easier to administer, especially to needle-averse children. They were first used in the early 1960s and quickly spread globally.
Polio is still not completely a thing of the past. There are still areas, especially in Africa and Asia, where polio persists.