NOV 12, 2014 12:00 AM PST

Galvanized Through Fear

WRITTEN BY: Judy O'Rourke
To turn the tide, nearly two million children took part in a double-blind study for the polio vaccine

On the recent anniversary of the birth of Dr. Jonas Salk-a century ago-his vigorous efforts to create and fine-tune a vaccine against polio 60 years ago were given fresh focus in contrast with how things work today.

"All Things Considered," an NPR broadcast, recently tapped the brain of David Oshinsky, PhD, looking back at the historic polio vaccination trials. Oshinsky, a distinguished writer and historian, won the Pulitzer Prize in History and the Hoover Presidential Book Award for his 2005 book, "Polio: An American Story." Oshinsky's research into the history of polio also nabbed him the 2010 Cartwright Prize from Columbia University Medical Center. Host Robert Siegel notes Salk was a researcher who dedicated his life to developing a vaccine against the scourge of polio.

Some back story: poliomyelitis (polio), a potentially deadly infectious disease caused by the poliovirus, can infiltrate an infected person's brain and spinal cord, causing paralysis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For its sheer fear quotient, polio then was like Ebola today. In the pre-polio vaccine 1950s, outbreaks of the disease in the United States caused more than 15,000 cases of paralysis each year. People infected with the highly contagious disease who don't have symptoms can still pass the virus to others and make them sick, an eerie prospect during long summers in which children freely romped.

Salk and his team at the University of Pittsburgh developed the first effective polio vaccine in 1952, and by 1954, the time had come to test it nationwide.

Protocols for a national vaccine trial at that time stand in stark contrast to governmental oversight today. Oshinsky says all that was needed for a child to be allowed to participate in the national vaccine trial was his or her parent's signature on a consent form. At that dire time, parents of more than 1.8 million school-age children across the United States readily signed. No chance of a repeat of anything like that today, he notes, especially with the anti-vaccine movement under way.

But at that time, it was impossible to escape the ravages of polio, Oshinsky notes, with the sight of children strapped with leg braces, in wheelchairs, and in iron lungs (a body-size artificial respiration machine). And children died of the disease.

There was immense buy-in from parents, anxious to shield their children from this grave foe. In the double-blind study, participants knew not whether the child received the vaccine or a placebo. The shot was later given to children who had received the placebo.

Polio has now been eradicated in the United States for about three decades. But in the scientific community, Salk did not command the same respect as Albert Sabin, who developed the second polio vaccine sanctioned for use in the United States, an oral polio vaccine, made with a live, attenuated version of the poliovirus.

Salk was "blackballed" by the virology community, and never inducted into the National Academy of Sciences. Oshinsky calls this omission scandalous.

Oshinsky fascinatingly speculates on why this may be so. No spoiler here; check out the story on NPR:
About the Author
  • Judy O'Rourke worked as a newspaper reporter before becoming chief editor of Clinical Lab Products magazine. As a freelance writer today, she is interested in finding the story behind the latest developments in medicine and science, and in learning what lies ahead.
You May Also Like
DEC 15, 2019
Earth & The Environment
DEC 15, 2019
Air pollution moving across state lines affects some groups more than others
Have you ever heard about fine particulate matter air pollution? If not, it’s time you do, because it is literally all around you. Fine particulate m...
DEC 15, 2019
Cell & Molecular Biology
DEC 15, 2019
Scientists Reverse Cognitive Defects in Down Syndrome Mouse Model
Researchers have found a drug that can correct the memory and learning impairments that are linked to Down syndrome....
DEC 15, 2019
DEC 15, 2019
Single Dose Ketamine Could Rewire Alcohol, Drug Dependance
Presentation by Tobias Stephenson about previous research exploring ketamine as an addiction treatment.    Researchers at University College Lond...
DEC 15, 2019
Health & Medicine
DEC 15, 2019
Cell Phone Use Related Injuries on the Rise
Are you reading this on your cell phone? Check your posture and your surroundings! A study published yesterday in Jama Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surge...
DEC 15, 2019
DEC 15, 2019
Hybrid Antibiotic Can Destroy Dangerous Staph Biofilms
When staph begins to grow on medical devices like implants used on wounds, artificial joints, or catheters, they can cause chronic, serious infections....
DEC 15, 2019
Cell & Molecular Biology
DEC 15, 2019
Time-Restricted Eating Improves Symptoms of Metabolic Syndrome
Occasional fasting has been linked to a variety of health benefits....
Loading Comments...