Polio Vaccine: It Tamed a Scourge, Transformed Medicine

50 years ago, officials announced the success of the breakthrough shot

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HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, April 12, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- It was the beginning of the end for polio, and the start of a new era in medicine.

Fifty years ago today, health authorities announced the development of the first safe and effective vaccine for polio.

Within six years of that declaration, the incidence of the disease would drop more than 90 percent, said David Rose, archivist at the March of Dimes, which was founded more than half a century ago as the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, its mission to eradicate polio.

Today, the deadly virus has been eradicated in the Americas, the Western Pacific and Europe. Experts predict that, by the end of this year, India and Egypt will join the ranks of polio-free nations. By the end of 2006, Pakistan, Afghanistan and sub-Saharan Africa may also be polio-free.

But the vaccine did more than help tame a devastating disease. It coincided with the development of penicillin and other antibiotics to combat infectious diseases and launched a new era in medical care.

"It was the beginning of an age which allowed for everything from transplantation to the treatment of cancer," said Dr. Nancy Green, medical director for the March of Dimes. "All of those things have continued to be entirely dependent on this armamentarium for the prevention or treatment of infectious disease. I really think that ultimately came from the polio success."

For the current generation, polio is little more than a word. But older Americans still remember grade-school classmates in wheelchairs or braces, or those who never came back to school at all.

"Polio was an enormous problem in the U.S. and advanced countries in the 19th and 20th centuries," Rose said.

The virus hit indiscriminately, oblivious to class or race. Although children were primarily affected, adults also were stricken. In 1952, the most severe polio epidemic year on record, more than 57,800 Americans fell ill, some of whom ended up in wheelchairs or on the dreaded "iron lung." There were 3,000 deaths in the United States alone, according to the Nemours Foundation.

In the spring of 1954, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis launched the largest clinical trial in U.S. history. Its aim: to test the vaccine developed by Dr. Jonas Salk on more than 1.8 million school-aged children. Those children who received the vaccine are to this day known as "polio pioneers."

This huge volunteer effort may be one of the most enduring legacies of the vaccine trial.

"It was both a personal and political effort," Green said. "Because of everyone's intimate fear and knowledge of the scourge of polio, it really created this unprecedented public outpouring of financial support and also organizational support when it came time for the vaccine trials in 1954. That was the first time that the public anywhere in the world was harnessed to voluntarily get involved with public health and science... That has multiplied into all sorts of armbands and pins and can-do sort of stuff."

The trial also spurred the effort to conquer other diseases by vaccine, including whooping cough and chicken pox. "In a way, it gave more credibility to vaccines," Rose said.

Other scientific advances were also enabled by the polio research. The Foundation's early research into vaccine marked some of the earliest forays into molecular biology.

Since that time, the March of Dimes has funded numerous scientists, including Linus Pauling, who identified sickle cell anemia; James Watson, who identified the double helix structure of DNA; and Dr. T. Allen Merritt, who developed surfactant, which allows premature babies to breathe.

Another legacy has been a focus on basic science. "It took decades to develop the science and technology and to apply it to forming the [polio] vaccine," Green said.

"It certainly fired up basic science and the public support of research to cure what plagues us," she added. "If the vaccine had been a failure, think of where we would be now."

More information

For more on the 50th anniversary of the Salk vaccine, visit the Smithsonian.

SOURCES: Nancy Green, M.D., medical director, March of Dimes, White Plains, N.Y.; David Rose, archivist, March of Dimes, White Plains, N.Y.

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