Sunday, February 7, 2016

Conquering polio: Past, present ... and future

A field test of what would become the first polio vaccine began in the U.S. 60 years ago. So it's a shock, with the crippling disease nearly eradicated, that WHO warned Monday of an "extraordinary event": the spread of polio in 2014.

Conquering polio: Past, present ... and future

Children that participated in the 1954 field trials of the Salk vaccine were dubbed "polio pioneers." (University of Michigan)
Children that participated in the 1954 field trials of the Salk vaccine were dubbed "polio pioneers." (University of Michigan)

Sixty years ago, a field test of what would become the first polio vaccine got under way in the United States, enrolling 1.8 million children in the largest clinical trial in history. Over 600,000 young volunteers received injections of the brand new Salk vaccine. Nearly a million others were observed as a control group. One year later the results were announced: the vaccine worked. For their contribution, the children in the trials received a card signed by March of Dimes President Basil O’Connor naming them “polio pioneers.” 

It is hard to imagine parents today enrolling their children in a clinical trial of a brand new vaccine. Jonas Salk developed a killed- (a.k.a. inactivated-) virus  vaccine. Subsequently, Albert Sabin developed a live- (a.k.a. attenuated- or weakened-) virus vaccine.  Sabin’s oral polio vaccine (OPV) became the standard in the late 1960s -- until Salk’s shot was phased back in three decades later. Salk’s inactivated polio vaccine (IPV) is what is used in the U.S. today, although some other parts of the world have stuck with Sabin’s.

A global polio eradication effort began in 1988 and has vanquished polio in much of the world. That is why a statement issued Monday by the Emergency Committee of the World Health Organization is such a shock. The Committee advised that “the international spread of polio to date in 2014 constitutes an ‘extraordinary event’ and a public health risk to other States for which a coordinated international response is essential.” Several countries are now exporting wild poliovirus and others have wild polio infection but are not exporting them. In these nations, the WHO recommends, a supplementary immunization campaign is needed to protect residents and visitors.

This year, the 60th anniversary of the start of Salk’s polio vaccine trials, we ought to pause, remember, and honor the scientists who worked to end polio and the young volunteers who made it possible to declare the vaccine effective.

More coverage
We’ve come a long way towards meeting the goal of eradicating polio across the globe. As this new report makes clear, however, that there is still work to be done.

Read more about The Public's Health.

Professor of history, Rutgers University-Camden
We encourage respectful comments but reserve the right to delete anything that doesn't contribute to an engaging dialogue.
Help us moderate this thread by flagging comments that violate our guidelines.

Comment policy: comments are intended to be civil, friendly conversations. Please treat other participants with respect and in a way that you would want to be treated. You are responsible for what you say. And please, stay on topic. If you see an objectionable post, please report it to us using the "Report Abuse" option.

Please note that comments are monitored by staff. We reserve the right at all times to remove any information or materials that are unlawful, threatening, abusive, libelous, defamatory, obscene, vulgar, pornographic, profane, indecent or otherwise objectionable. Personal attacks, especially on other participants, are not permitted. We reserve the right to permanently block any user who violates these terms and conditions.

Additionally comments that are long, have multiple paragraph breaks, include code, or include hyperlinks may not be posted.

Read 0 comments
comments powered by Disqus
About this blog

What is public health — and why does it matter?

Through prevention, education, and intervention, public health practitioners - epidemiologists, health policy experts, municipal workers, environmental health scientists - work to keep us healthy.

It’s not always easy. Michael Yudell, Jonathan Purtle, and other contributors tell you why.

Michael Yudell, PhD, MPH Associate Professor, Dornsife School of Public Health, Drexel University
Jonathan Purtle, DrPH, MSc Assistant Professor, Drexel University School of Public Health
Janet Golden, PhD Professor of history, Rutgers University-Camden
Latest Health Videos
Also on
letter icon Newsletter