The Polio Field Trials

It may seem as if we’re living in uncharted times, but COVID-19 is only the most recent pandemic to roll across the country with no regard to state lines, age, race, or gender. I still remember when my sister was afflicted with polio in the early 1950s. Even though it wasn’t the most serious of cases, she had trouble walking a great distance. My mother had to carry my sister on her back the entire half-mile down our dirt road to get her to the school bus stop, and then carry her back in the afternoon. My sister eventually recovered her strength and was one of the lucky ones. So many other children didn’t fare as well. As this week marks the anniversary of the polio field trials, I thought it would be a good time to take a look back and to remind people that science is the answer to our current situation.tdih-april26-HD

Polio was one of the most feared diseases in the world, and each parent held their breath as the weather warmed and “polio season” began. People were encouraged to have their children practice social distancing. Cities closed swimming pools, movie theaters, schools, and churches. Physicians feared becoming infected themselves, and often diagnosed people based on impressions rather than an actual test. At the height of the pandemic, nearly 60,000 children were infected. 3,000 were dead, thousands more were paralyzed.

Polio is also an infectious disease caused by a virus and has afflicted mostly children since ancient times. It causes paralysis of the limbs or the respiratory system. UnknownThe disease reached epidemic proportions in the first half of the 20thcentury and is associated with the large iron lung machines that kept children alive by breathing for them. Ventilators that you hear so much about today weren’t yet invented.

Franklin Roosevelt was afflicted with polio at age 39, paralyzing him from the waist down, which forced him into a wheelchair for the remainder of his life. He helped found the organization later known as the March of Dimes, which helped fund the research done on the disease, including the Salk vaccine trials. Harry Truman declared war on polio in 1946 and called on all Americans to fight it on a national scale.

“The fight against infantile paralysis cannot be a local war,” Truman declared in a speech broadcast from the White House. “It must be nationwide. It must be total war in every city, town and village throughout the land. For only with a united front can we ever hope to win any war.” This initiative from the White House was what was needed to face polio head-on.

In April 1954, Jonas Salk began field trials of a vaccine against polio. hith-8-things-polio-vaccine-salk-109274461-2Salk was an epidemiologist whose work on an influenza vaccine led him to study and develop a vaccine for polio. Over 1.8 million children participated in the trials, which was the largest trial of its time. In the late 1950s, Albert Sabin developed an oral vaccine that was easier to administer and cheaper to produce than Salk’s. It eventually became the vaccine of choice in most countries.

Polio has been virtually eliminated in today’s world, although it still exists in certain African and Asian countries. The last case of polio in the United States was recorded in 1979. It is only one of the pandemics that have existed throughout history. We can hope to someday soon be adding COVID-19 to the list of pandemics that are tamed by a vaccine.



For additional reading on the subject of every parent’s nightmare, I suggest the following, all available on Amazon: