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Polio: Unprotected Story

Polio Pioneers

True story

It's important to remember that in the 1950s, protecting the public from polio was, in the truest sense, a national project. Every effort was made to see that the vaccine would be widely available to all children and polio would be wiped out.

More than 50 years ago, polio held U.S. families in a grip of terror. Especially during the summertime, when polio seemed most likely to circulate, parents feared they would hear in the news or from neighbors that someone in the community had polio. "People tried to keep their children safe from the potentially paralyzing disease by keeping them out of public places such as pools, parks, and theaters," explains Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The nation came together like never before in an effort to create a vaccine to protect children from polio. Millions of Americans raised funds in their communities for research. Much of the funding came through the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (presently the March of Dimes Foundation), founded in 1938 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, himself paralyzed by polio in the prime of his life. Before the March of Dimes drew national attention to the search for a polio vaccine, two attempts to develop a polio vaccine had failed—neither produced immunity and some deaths were blamed on one of the vaccines.

In 1952, Jonas Salk and his team at the University of Pittsburgh created the first effective polio vaccine. By 1954, it was time to test the Salk vaccine widely. Thomas Francis Jr. at the University of Michigan led the nationwide test, the scale of which had never been seen before. More than 1.8 million school children across the United States participated. Thousands of health care professionals and other volunteers administered the vaccine and collected results.

Everyone had the same goal: victory over polio. In 1955 the results were proclaimed: the Salk vaccine was "safe, effective, and potent!"

The Salk vaccine was made by killing the poliovirus, and it was given as a shot. The second polio vaccine licensed for use in the United States, created by Albert Sabin, was an oral polio vaccine, which was made by using a live weakened version of the poliovirus. By 1963, a formulation of this vaccine that prevented three strains or types of polio—like the Salk vaccine before it—was available.

"Polio was eliminated in the United States in 1979," says CDC's Dr. Greg Wallace. "But, because polio still circulates in other parts of the world, we need to continue vaccination in the United States."

"Scenarios for polio being introduced into the United States are easy to imagine, and the disease could get a foothold if we don't maintain high vaccination rates," explains Dr. Wallace. "For example, an unvaccinated U.S. resident could travel abroad and become infected before returning home. Or, a visitor to the United States could travel here while infected. The point is, one person infected with polio is all it takes to start the spread of polio to others if they are not protected by vaccination."

It's important to remember that in the 1950s, protecting the public from polio was, in the truest sense, a national project. Every effort was made to see that the vaccine would be widely available to all children and polio would be wiped out.

Vaccinating each child in the United States today remains a priority. As some countries have seen in the last decade, without widespread vaccination, the disease rapidly returns and people must once again work to eliminate it.

This story is one of many recounted in the fact sheets series, Diseases & the Vaccines that Prevent Them.

For other true stories, see Vaccines: Unprotected Stories.

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