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50th Anniversary of the Polio Vaccine
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April 12, 2005, marks the 50th anniversary of the first polio vaccine. Polio was eliminated in the U.S. because protecting the public's health was perceived as a simple necessity, and every effort was made to see that the vaccine would be freely distributed and polio would be eradicated. Since this effort 50 years ago, we can now protect children from more than 12 vaccine preventable diseases and disease rates have been reduced by 99% in the U.S. Yet, without diligent efforts to maintain immunization programs here and strengthen them worldwide, the diseases seen 50 years ago remain a threat to our children.
April 12, 1955, was a unique moment in our contemporary culture. That date culminated more than 17 years of research that led to the licensure of the first poliovirus vaccine. The vaccine breakthrough was driven by Jonas Salk and his team of scientists at the University of Pittsburgh and the pioneering field trials led by Thomas Francis Jr. at the University of Michigan. The research was funded by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, today known as the March of Dimes.
The fight against polio brought together communities in a national collaboration that at that time was the largest human cooperative effort in history. In the days leading up to the vaccine's approval, children in communities across the United States participated in the field trials as America's "Polio Pioneers." The University of Michigan analyzed the results of the field trials to help ascertain the safety, effectiveness, and potency of the vaccine. Thousands of health-care workers and lay people volunteered their time to assist with the vaccine field trials, the largest ever in United States history. Millions of Americans participated by raising funds in their communities to support the larger research effort and a single goal: victory over polio.
Although polio was eliminated from the Americas in 1994, the disease still circulates in Asia and Africa, paralyzing the world's most vulnerable children. In a continually shrinking world, polio and other vaccine-preventable diseases remain only a plane ride away. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative, spearheaded by the World Health Organization, Rotary International, the CDC and UNICEF, was begun in 1988. That year, an estimated 350,000 children were paralyzed with polio worldwide; in 2004, polio cases had fallen to just over 1,200 cases globally. The Initiative's success will be a triumph of international co-operation, attesting to our ability to unite across borders and differences to conquer global afflictions.
April 12, 2005, marks the 50th anniversary of the first polio vaccine. Since the introduction of the vaccine, great strides have been made in significantly reducing the health impact of vaccine-preventable diseases on children and adults worldwide. Polio was eliminated in the U.S. because protecting the public's health was perceived as a simple necessity, and every effort was made to see that the vaccine would be freely distributed and polio would be eradicated. Since this effort 50 years ago, we can now protect children from more than 12 vaccine preventable diseases and disease rates have been reduced by 99% in the U.S. Yet, without diligent efforts to maintain immunization programs here and strengthen them worldwide, the diseases seen 50 years ago remain a threat to our children.
Jonas Salk, M.D.
October 28, 1914 - June 23, 1995
The 1955 announcement by Jonas Salk that the polio vaccine was safe revolutionized the approach to public health and ended the tremendous fear and anxiety that gripped parents each summer as children by the thousands became infected with polio.
Salk’s discovery further opened the eyes of the world to the power of scientific research. Both in the United States and around the world it showed how scientific solutions developed in basic research laboratories could lead to practical applications for complex problems at the core of human health. Salk’s internationalist vision led to a worldwide health initiative by the United Nations.
Jonas Salk (exit) dedicated his life to helping humankind. It was out of that dedication that he created the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in 1965. The Salk Institute is an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to fundamental discoveries in the life sciences, the improvement of human health and conditions, and the training of future generations of researchers. When Jonas Salk founded the Institute with a gift of land from the City of San Diego and the financial support of the March of Dimes Foundation, it was with the idea of creating a vibrant, intellectual research community that would attract the greatest minds, dedicated to pursuing the kinds of scientific achievements that had made him an international figure only five years before.
Born in New York City, October 28, 1914, Salk obtained his M.D. degree from New York University and was a staff physician at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital. He then joined his mentor, Dr. Thomas Francis, as a research fellow at the University of Michigan. There, he worked to develop an influenza vaccine with the U.S. Army. In 1947 he was appointed director of the Virus Research Laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. It was there that Salk developed the techniques that would lead to his polio vaccine.
Salk died at age 80 on June 23, 1995. At the time of his death he was deeply involved in a search for a solution to the AIDS virus, and just three hours before his death he was working on a paper explaining new work in the field of neurology. A memorial at the Salk Institute with a statement from Salk captures his vision: "Hope lies in dreams, in imagination and in the courage of those who dare to make dreams into reality."
Albert B. Sabin, M.D.
Few in the history of science and medicine have contributed as much to the well being of the world as Albert Sabin. Recognized everywhere as the developer of the oral polio vaccine, Dr. Sabin spent his entire life at the leading edge of man’s evolving quest for scientific and medical knowledge.
Dr. Sabin was born in Bialysock, Poland. His family settled in the United States in 1921. He graduated from New York University College of Medicine in 1931. He began his career at Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research; then he served at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and the Children’s Hospital Research Foundation. During Dr. Sabin’s 30 years in Cincinnati, he developed the live, attenuated polio vaccine—the first vaccine ever that could be administered orally instead of by injection.
Physicians in the U.S. began to use Dr. Sabin’s vaccine in 1961. It quickly became the dominant polio vaccine owing to its easy, oral administration and its greater strength compared to the earlier, injected vaccine. Soon, the Sabin vaccine became the vaccine of choice throughout the world. It has been at the center of the global polio eradication effort that has had major success around the world and is now taking aim with vaccination of the six countries where polio remains endemic.
At the time of his death in March 1993, Dr. Sabin was actively engaged in research on a new type of measles vaccine that could be administered without injection.
Dr. Sabin passionately believed that scientists must not only achieve in the laboratory, they must strive to translate their discoveries into practical use. “A scientist who is also a human being cannot rest while knowledge which might reduce suffering rests on the shelf,” he said.
In recognition of his contributions to humankind, Dr. Sabin received more than 30 honorary degrees from universities throughout the world. He received numerous additional awards including the U.S. Medal of Science.
Thomas Francis Jr., M.D.
July 15, 1900 – October 1, 1969
A physician, virologist, and epidemiologist, Thomas Francis Jr.—T.F. or Tommy to his friends—was born in Gas City, Indiana. The son of a steelworker and part-time minister, Francis grew up in western Pennsylvania, graduated from Allegheny College on scholarship in 1921, and received his medical degree from Yale in 1925. From there he went to the Rockefeller Institute, where he joined an elite research team then preparing vaccines against bacterial pneumonia. Francis soon switched diseases, however, and took up influenza research. He became the first American to isolate human flu virus.
In 1933, Francis married Dorothy Packard Otton, and they had two children. By 1938, he had become a professor of bacteriology and chair of the department of the New York University College of Medicine, where he remained until 1941.
That year, Francis received an invitation from Henry F. Vaughan to join the newly established School of Public Health at the University of Michigan. Earlier in the year, he had also been appointed director of the Commission on Influenza of the United States Army Epidemiological Board. Under the auspices of the commission, Francis took part in the successful development, field trial, and evaluation of protective influenza vaccines.
At Michigan, Francis built a virus laboratory and a Department of Epidemiology that quickly focused on a broad range of infectious diseases. When Jonas Salk came to the University of Michigan in 1941 to pursue postgraduate work in virology, it was Francis who taught him the methodology of vaccine development. Salk’s work at Michigan ultimately led to his polio vaccine.
From his Ann Arbor base, Francis gained national and international renown. In 1947, the Regents of the university awarded him one of the first Michigan distinguished professorships, naming him the Henry Sewall University Professor of Epidemiology. In addition to his work at the School of Public Health, Francis joined the pediatrics faculty at the university’s Medical School.
By the late 1940s, Francis had extended his studies of viral disease to include studies of enteric viruses, particularly the polio virus. In 1953, he was asked to design, supervise, and evaluate the field trials of the polio vaccine developed by his former protegé, Jonas Salk. A man of exacting standards, Francis insisted on a double-blind means of statistical analysis, so that neither patients nor administering physicians knew whether an inoculation was a vaccine or a placebo. He also demanded a controlled observation trial. Approximately 1.8 million children from 217 areas of the United States, Canada, and Finland took part in the trial. In scope and magnitude, it was unprecedented. On April 12, 1955, Francis announced to an expectant world that the Salk vaccine was “safe, effective, and potent.”
Six months later, Francis visited Japan at the behest of the U.S. government’s Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission. Charged with determining new objectives and a new strategy for the commission, Francis authored the “Unified Study Program,” which contained plans to investigate the natural history of a population over its lifespan.
Francis subsequently turned to the study of the epidemiology of chronic disease, and he created the Tecumseh Study. His aim was to build a community laboratory in the town of Tecumseh, Michigan, which could take advantage of geography, history, and local culture to lay the groundwork for accumulated data from which it would be possible over a period of years to draw secure inferences on disease precursors. Through the Tecumseh Study, Francis contributed profoundly to scientists’ understanding of the epidemiology of chronic disease, and furthered his renown as a scientist, investigator, and innovator.
Throughout these years, Francis taught and served as an exemplary administrator at the University of Michigan. He received many honors and awards during his career, notably the Medal of Freedom from the U.S. Army in 1946. About his profession, Francis remarked, “Epidemiology must constantly seek imaginative and ingenious teachers and scholars to create a new genre of medical ecologists who, with both the fine sensitivity of the scientific artist, and the broad perception of the community sculptor, can interpret the interplay of forces which result in disease.” Thomas Francis Jr. died in 1969.
12 Ideas for Promoting this Anniversary
- Send an op-ed article to your local paper talking about the historical significance of the polio vaccine and the need for today’s children to be fully immunized.
- Conduct a local press conference and feature individuals who were a) children during the 1950s and remember polio scares,
b) health care staff who treated polio cases or participated in the first immunization efforts, and c) polio survivors.
- Issue a press release for local media.
- The announcement of a polio vaccine 50 years ago caused bells to ring in churches throughout the country. Work with local churches in your community to ring the bells once again at 10:20 a.m. (EST), the actual time of the announcement.
- Contact your local Rotary and offer to speak about polio and the importance of immunizations at a local Rotary meeting. Rotary International has been a driving force in polio eradication efforts worldwide.
- Provide information to local schools about the polio anniversary, including information about the year-long Smithsonian Institute National Museum of American History’s exhibit “Whatever Happened to Polio” which can be accessed from the Smithsonian website at http://americanhistory.si.edu/exhibitions/exhibition.cfm?key=38&exkey=352
- Celebrate National Infant Immunization Week and tie the polio vaccine anniversary into NIIW messages.
- Post information about polio and the polio vaccine anniversary on your website. Information and polio links can be found on this page www.cdc.gov/vaccines/events/polio-vacc-50th/default.htm
- Develop a public service announcement for the month of April tying the polio vaccine anniversary into the need for children today to be fully immunized.
- Have state and local political leaders issue a proclamation recognizing the importance of the polio vaccine.
- Download and reproduce the polio timeline/poster at www.cdc.gov/vaccines/events/polio-vacc-50th/timeline.htm and distribute it to local health care providers to post in their offices.
- Work with local businesses and schools to conduct essay contests on what the polio vaccine has meant to the health of children worldwide.
Quotes from Organizations
CDC-National Center for Immunization & Respiratory Diseases
We have made great progress in a very short time. We now have the means to protect our nation’s children against terrible diseases, such as polio, that in the past caused great suffering, disability, and premature death in the U.S. Today, polio has been removed from our national consciousness and parents in the United States rarely give a though to a disease that was once an obsession. However, we must remember that there was a time not many years ago when thousands of children died and suffered from diseases that today are easily preventable with vaccines. We must not forget that before the vaccine became available, we used to have, on average, more than 16,000 cases of paralytic polio each year in the United States. The CDC is committed to strengthening immunization programs for all vaccine-preventable diseases and remains committed to making polio eradication a reality.
Steve Cochi, MD., M.P.H.
Acting Director, National Immunization Program.
March of Dimes
"Fifty years ago, American children participated in a vast voluntary effort to stop a childhood epidemic. These volunteers, dubbed "Polio Pioneers," proved that a vaccine could prevent the paralyzing disease. Yet just as important, they also showed the world the importance of volunteerism. Today, volunteers still largely drive the fight against polio. Members of Rotary, a humanitarian service organization that has made eradicating polio its main philanthropic goal since 1985, have helped immunize over 2 billion children in 122 countries, and have contributed more than $500 million for the cause. Never before have individual volunteers and the influence of the private sector played such a core role in a global public health effort. Today, Rotary members are just as committed, and will not stop until every child is safe from the threat and devastating consequences of polio."
Glenn E. Estess, Sr.
2004-05 Rotary International President
Salk Institute for Biological Studies
With his solution to polio and his vision for vaccinating every single person in each corner of the world, Jonas Salk changed for all time the way we look at both public health and the value of fundamental scientific research.
Salk did not profit personally from the Salk polio vaccine. But the vaccine provided Salk with the clout to pursue his vision of using basic biomedical research to help humanity. That is why 2005 is a dual anniversary for Salk: the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the polio vaccine and the 40th anniversary of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.
Today the Salk Institute is at the forefront of biological research. Home to 11 Nobel Laureates since its founding, the Salk Institute provides an environment for great minds to make the great discoveries that have led to entirely new directions and fields in biological and medical research. Salk Institute science is truly “where cures begin.”
From mapping the human brain to searching for solutions to AIDS, cancer, Alzheimer’s and world hunger, the Salk Institute is the ongoing embodiment of Jonas’ vision for a better world. The celebration of Jonas Salk’s contributions does not end with the vaccine, but continues on with the wondrous work at the Institute he founded.
Dr. Richard Murphy
President and CEO of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies
University of Pittsburgh
The development of the first safe, effective vaccine against poliomyelitis by Dr. Jonas Salk and his colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh was an accomplishment that ended an era of global fear of a dread contagious disease and, in the process, reshaped the conduct of science, the funding of science, and the public’s role in support of science. But many vaccine preventable diseases remain very much with us in the 21st century, affecting millions across the world. Today, the University of Pittsburgh has identified as one of its highest institutional priorities research aimed at the development of vaccines for viruses and other infectious agents that not only occur naturally and can pose great health risks, particularly in developing countries, but also can be used as agents of bioterrorism.
Arthur S. Levine, M.D.
Senior Vice Chancellor for the Health Sciences and Dean
School of Medicine University of Pittsburgh
Sample Opinion Editorial
Whatever happened to polio? Today, 50 years after the introduction of the first polio vaccine, polio has been removed from our national consciousness and parents in the United States rarely give a thought to a disease that was once an obsession. However, we must not forget that before the vaccine became available, we used to have, on average, more that 16,000 cases of paralytic polio each year in the U.S.
“Safe, effective, and potent”—these words, on April 12, 1955, announced to the world that the Salk polio vaccine was up to 90% effective in preventing polio. The development of the vaccine by Dr. Jonas Salk and his colleagues was an accomplishment that ended an era of global fear of a dreaded contagious disease and, in the process, reshaped the conduct of science, the funding of science, and the public’s role in the support of science. These efforts forever changed the way that public health was administered, and advanced the general understanding of ways basic scientific research benefited humanity through collaboration between academic, philanthropic, and government institutions.
The fight against polio brought together communities in a national collaboration that at that time was the largest human cooperative effort in history. In the days leading up to the vaccine’s approval, children in communities across the United States participated in the field trials as America’s “Polio Pioneers.” These “Pioneers” proved that a vaccine could prevent the paralyzing disease. Thousands of healthcare workers and lay people volunteered their time to assist with the vaccine field trials. Millions of Americans participated by raising funds in their communities to support the larger research effort and a single goal: victory over polio.
Polio was eliminated in the United States because protecting the public’s health was perceived as a simple necessity, and every effort was made to see that the vaccine would be freely distributed and polio would be eradicated. We have made great progress in a very short time. We now have the means to protect our nation’s children against terrible diseases, such as polio, that in the past caused great suffering, disability, and premature death in the U.S.; yet polio still exists in Asia and Africa. In a continually shrinking world, polio and other vaccine-preventable diseases are only a plane ride away.
Vaccines have been one of the most important health gains in the past century. Infants and young children are particularly vulnerable to infectious diseases; that is why it is critical that they are protected through immunization. The benefits of vaccination far outweigh the risks. Children who are not immunized increase the chance that others will get the disease. Since this effort 50 years ago, we can now protect children from more than 12 vaccine-preventable diseases, and disease rates have been reduced by 99% in the United States. Immunizations are extremely safe thanks to advancements in medical research and ongoing review by doctors, researchers, and public health officials; yet without diligent efforts to maintain immunization programs here and strengthen them worldwide, the diseases seen 50 years ago remain a threat to our children.
Links to Related Websites
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
National Center for Immunization & Respiratory Diseases
- Children's Hospital Boston
- March of Dimes
- Rotary International
- Sabin Vaccine Institute
- Salk Institute for Biological Studies
- Smithsonian National Museum of American History
- University of Michigan
- University of Pittsburgh
- World Health Organization
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Content last reviewed on October 23, 2006
Content Source: National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases