On April 12, 1955, Dr. Jonas Salk announced in a press conference at his research facility at the University of Michigan, that tests of his vaccination for poliomyelitis had been successful. At the time, polio was reported to be as feared by the general public as the atomic bomb. The road to the release of the first polio vaccine looms large in the history of the Baby Boom.
Polio is a contagious viral disease that mainly affects children under the age of five. It usually affects the lower extremities, consequently inducing paralysis of the legs. For these reasons it is associated with infantile paralysis. Like most diseases, there are different strains. When the disease embedded itself in the breathing system, it caused death in five to 10 percent of people (mostly children) who contracted that form. The Iron Lung was primarily developed to assist the breathing of people with this form of polio.
The first significant outbreak of infantile polio struck the U.S. in 1894; it was not known to be a virus until 1908. After an epidemic hit New York City in 1916, research for a cure was accelerated. By 1933, 5,000 cases of infantile paralysis were reported in the U.S. In 1946, the number had jumped to 25,000, and by 1952, it more than doubled to 59,000. This precipitous rise became a significant concern for parents of the burgeoning Baby Boom. In some areas that had outbreaks, panic caused people to desert public pools and large gatherings.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was diagnosed with the disease at the age of 39 in 1921, a rare occurrence of an adult onset of the disease. As President of the U.S. in 1938, his personal experience with polio caused him to create the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. This organization, focused on polio research, later became the March of Dimes. During World War II, FDR was wheelchair-bound due to the disease, though he had made an agreement with the press not to release photos of him in his chair lest he be perceived as a wartime president in a weakened condition.
Several scientists around the world were working on developing a vaccination for polio as far back as World War I. Work on developing a flu vaccine by a host of researchers, including Dr. Jonas Salk while he was a med student, became the basis for the research of a polio vaccine. There are two main approaches to developing vaccines: one takes a lesser strain of the live disease and introduces it into a patient to develop an antibody resistance to the disease before a stronger strain can strike. The other method is to inject an inoperative, “killed” version of the disease cells to the patient so the body recognizes the intruder and desensitizes the patient to the disease. Dr. Salk took this second approach. Taking the other approach around the same time was Dr. Albert Sabin, a Polish researcher.
Early boomers, including Mister Boomer, recall the March of Dimes campaigns throughout the 1950s and ’60s in practically every retail establishment. Cardboard cards were displayed by every cash register, with each card having slots to hold dimes. When a customer received change, he or she could slip a dime or two into the card for polio research. Each year the March of Dimes conducted a fundraising drive in the schools, too. Boomers were encouraged by their teachers to contribute their saved dimes, and collect dimes from family and friends, to give to the March of Dimes and their quest to develop a vaccine. Classrooms would compete with one another for having the most money collected. The March of Dimes was the primary foundation that funded Dr. Salk’s experiments.
Dr. Salk wanted to test his theory and the efficacy of his working vaccine, so he petitioned the government to allow a nationwide study. In 1954 he was granted permission and 1.8 million Americans, mostly children, were enlisted to participate. It would be the largest medical research test ever conducted. Half were to be given the vaccine, while the other half received a placebo. Baby boomer parents, fearing a continued rise in polio rates, signed up their children with a simple form: “I give my consent to have my child participate in this experiment.” No one knew what to expect, or what would be the final outcome.
The study was immediately controversial. Polio had been affecting upper and middle class children disproportionately over poorer children. It was assumed that people in the lower-middle and lower classes were more subjected to a wider variety of germs, and therefore more apt to be able to fight off the disease before it took hold. The upper classes therefore had less effective immune systems. The public outcry worried that this inequality meant that only the upper classes would receive the actual vaccine dose while those less fortunate would be receiving the placebo. Dr. Salk’s group claimed the dosage was determined at random.
Despite Dr. Salk’s 1955 pronouncement that his injectable vaccine had proved to be 80 to 90 percent effective, the U.S. government did not immediately authorize its use. Instead, one by Dr. Albert Sabin, using the live vaccine and distributed though an oral ingestion — drops in a sugar cube — are what many boomers will recall receiving as kids. Parents and children alike lined up outside health centers and public schools to receive their vaccine dose. A small number of children acquired the disease from taking the vaccine, and questions arose about whether Dr. Sabin’s vaccine actually killed the virus; this caused Dr. Salk’s injectable “killed virus” vaccine to replace the oral application, though both remained available.
Due to the diligence of Dr. Salk, Dr. Sabin and a host of others, by 1961 the number of reported polio cases in the U.S. had dropped by 96 percent. The Center for Disease Control reported virtual eradication of the disease in 1979, though the last reported case occurred in 1991.
Polio continues to ravage other parts of the world, mainly in developing countries. Efforts are underway by the United Nations to get the latest generation of polio vaccines to the areas that need it the most. When this scourge of the Baby Boom is finally snuffed out, boomers will have had a direct hand in the process as both test subjects and funding contributors to one of the greatest medical victories of our generation.
What do you remember about receiving the polio vaccine, boomers?