The deadly polio epidemic and why it matters for coronavirus


The worry and uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic might really feel new to many people. But it’s unusually acquainted to those that lived by means of the polio epidemic of the final century.

Like a horror film, all through the primary half of the 20th century, the polio virus arrived each summer, striking without warning. No one knew how polio was transmitted or what induced it. There had been wild theories that the virus unfold from imported bananas or stray cats. There was no identified treatment or vaccine.

For the following 4 many years, swimming pools and movie theaters closed during polio season for worry of this invisible enemy. Parents stopped sending their youngsters to playgrounds or birthday events for worry they might “catch polio.”

In the outbreak of 1916, well being staff in New York City would bodily take away youngsters from their houses or playgrounds in the event that they suspected they is likely to be contaminated. Kids, who gave the impression to be focused by the illness, had been taken from their households and remoted in sanitariums.

In 1952, the variety of polio instances within the U.S. peaked at 57,879, leading to 3,145 deaths. Those who survived this extremely infectious illness might find yourself with some type of paralysis, forcing them to make use of crutches, wheelchairs or to be put into an iron lung, a big tank respirator that will pull air out and in of the lungs, permitting them to breathe.

Ultimately, poliomyelitis was conquered in 1955 by a vaccine developed by Jonas Salk and his group on the University of Pittsburgh.

In conjunction with the 50th anniversary celebration of the polio vaccine, I produced a documentary, “The Shot Felt ‘Round the World,” that told the stories of the many people who worked alongside Salk in the lab and participated in vaccine trials. As a filmmaker and senior lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh, I believe these stories provide hope in the fight to combat another unseen enemy, coronavirus.

Pulling together as a nation

Before a vaccine was available, polio caused more than 15,000 cases of paralysis a year in the U.S. It was the most feared disease of the 20th century. With the success of the polio vaccine, Jonas Salk, 39, became one of the most celebrated scientists in the world.

He refused a patent for his work, saying the vaccine belonged to the people and that to patent it would be like “patenting the Sun.” Leading drug manufacturers made the vaccine available, and more than 400 million doses were distributed between 1955 and 1962, reducing the cases of polio by 90%. By the end of the century, the polio scare had become a faint memory.

The deadly polio epidemic and why it matters for coronavirus
First and second graders in San Diego line up to be vaccinated in 1955. Bettman Collection via Getty Images

Developing the vaccine was a collective effort, from national leadership by President Franklin Roosevelt to those who worked alongside Salk in the lab and the volunteers who rolled up their sleeves to be experimentally inoculated.

Sidney Busis, a young physician at the time, performed tracheotomies on two-year-old children, making an incision in their necks and enclosing them in iron lung to artificially sustain their breathing. His wife Sylvia was terrified that he would transmit polio to their two young sons when he came home at night.

In the Salk lab, a graduate student, Ethyl “Mickey” Bailey, pipetted by mouth – pulling liquid up thin glass tubes – live polio virus as part of the research process.

My own neighbor, Martha Hunter, was in grade school when her parents volunteered her for “the shot,” the experimental Salk vaccine that no one knew if it would work.

President Roosevelt, who kept his own paralysis from polio hidden from the public, organized the nonprofit National Institute of Infant Paralysis, later known as the March of Dimes. He encouraged every American to send dimes to the White House to support treating polio victims and researching a cure. In the process, he changed American philanthropy, which had been largely the domain of the wealthy.

The deadly polio epidemic and why it matters for coronavirus
Thousands of March of Dimes contributions were delivered to the White House in 1938. Everett Historical/

That was a time, said Salk’s oldest son, Dr. Peter Salk, in an interview for our movie, when the general public trusted the medical neighborhood and believed in one another. I consider that’s an concept we have to resurrect in the present day.

What it took to finish polio

Jonas Salk was 33 when he started his medical analysis in a basement lab on the University of Pittsburgh. He had needed to work on influenza however switched to polio, an space the place analysis funding was extra obtainable. Three flooring above his lab was a polio ward crammed to capability with adults and kids in iron lungs and rocking beds to assist them breathe.

There had been many false leads and lifeless ends in pursuing treatments. Even President Roosevelt traveled to Warm Springs, Georgia, believing that the water there may need healing results. While most within the scientific neighborhood believed {that a} live polio virus vaccine was the reply, Salk went towards medical orthodoxy.

He pursued a killed virus vaccine, making an attempt it first on cells within the lab, then monkeys and, subsequent, younger individuals who already had polio. There had been no ensures this may work. Ten years earlier, a different polio vaccine had inadvertently given children polio, killing 9 of them.

In 1953, Salk was given permission to check the vaccine on wholesome youngsters and commenced along with his three sons, adopted by a vaccination pilot research of seven,500 youngsters in native Pittsburgh colleges. While the outcomes had been constructive, the vaccine nonetheless wanted to be examined extra extensively to realize approval.

In 1954, the March of Dimes organized a nationwide subject trial of 1.eight million schoolchildren, the largest medical study in history. The information was processed and on April 12, 1955, six years from when Salk started his analysis, the Salk polio vaccine was declared “safe and effective.” Church bells rang and newspapers the world over claimed “Victory Over Polio.”

Vaccinations and international well being safety

In adapting our documentary for broadcast on the Smithsonian Channel, we interviewed Bill Gates, who defined why the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation had made eradicating polio worldwide a top priority.

The polio vaccine was developed by means of the painstaking work of Jonas Salk and public efforts to fund analysis.

Vaccines, he stated, have saved millions of lives. He joined the World Health Organization, UNICEF, Rotary International and others to assist end the job began by the Salk vaccine, eradicating polio on this planet. This accomplishment will unlock assets that may now not need to be spent on the illness.

The deadly polio epidemic and why it matters for coronavirus
A well being care employee delivers an oral dose of the polio vaccine. AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary

Up till now, smallpox is the one infectious illness we’ve ever eradicated. But the global infrastructure that the polio eradication effort has put in place helps to combat different infectious ailments additionally, equivalent to Ebola, malaria and now coronavirus. On Feb. 5, 2020, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation introduced it will provide US$100 million to enhance detection, isolation and remedy efforts and speed up the event of a vaccine for the coronavirus.

These are horrifying occasions because the coronavirus spreads in methods paying homage to poliomyelitis. It’s instructive to recollect what it took to just about eradicate polio and a reminder of what we are able to do when confronted with a standard enemy. On Oct. 24, 2019, World Polio Day, WHO introduced there have been solely 94 instances of untamed polio on this planet. The success of the polio vaccine launched a series of vaccines that negated lots of the results of infectious illness for the second half of the 20th century.

At the top of our movie, Salk’s youngest son, Dr. Jonathan Salk, recounted how his father puzzled daily why we couldn’t apply the spirit of what occurred with the event of the polio vaccine to different issues, equivalent to illness or poverty. In combating coronavirus, maybe the residents and governments of the world will rise to the event and show what is feasible after we work collectively.

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