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
APR 30, 2020
APR 30, 2020
Nighttime Blood Pressure Changes Linked to Cerebrovascular Disease and Impaired Cognition
When most people go to sleep, their blood pressure decreases, or dips, compared to daytime values. However, for some, a ...
MAY 03, 2020
MAY 03, 2020
Understanding How Lyme Disease Persists in the Body
Lyme disease is a confounding illness that can be difficult to diagnose, and can cause a wide range of serious health pr ...
MAY 07, 2020
Health & Medicine
MAY 07, 2020
Mosquito Feeding Time Shift Impacts Malaria Prevention Methods
Thanks to the success of insecticide-treated bed nets, mosquitos seem to have shifted their feeding times away from the ...
MAY 19, 2020
MAY 19, 2020
The Mystery of the Life-Saving Vaccine Solved
In the early 1900s, French bacteriologists Albert Calmette and Camille Guerin spent the better half of a decade developi ...
MAY 26, 2020
Genetics & Genomics
MAY 26, 2020
Some People May be Predisposed to Metastasis if They Get Cancer
Cancer can occur for many reasons and is influenced by many different factors, including genes and the environment. But ...
JUN 01, 2020
JUN 01, 2020
Most Americans Do Not Adhere to All Recommended Healthy Behaviors
Leading public health institutions, such as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Centers for Dise ...
Loading Comments...