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Polio Vaccine: from Tragedy to a Triumph of Modern Medicine

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“A scientist who is also a human being cannot rest while knowledge which might be used to reduce suffering rests on the shelf.” – Albert Sabin 

At a time when polio was sweeping the globe and causing devastation, scientists began searching for a vaccine to end the epidemic. Although there were many failed attempts and religious opposition, the genetic engineering of the polio vaccine of 1952 was a triumph, as it ended the tragic spread of polio across the globe. In 1894, the first polio outbreak appeared. There were 132 recorded cases of permanent paralysis and eighteen deaths, but at this time doctors did not believe polio was contagious. 

Doctor Charles Caverly spoke about this, saying, “I find but a single instance in which more than one member of a family had the disease, and as it usually occurred in families of more than one child and as no efforts were made at isolation, it is very certain that it was non-contagious.” The lack of knowledge and medical understanding that doctors had at this time strongly contributed to the fast spread of the disease. Eleven years after the first outbreak, a Swedish Physician named Ivar Wickham made a breakthrough discovery about the contagious nature of polio. He published his two primary research findings, the first being that polio was, in fact, contagious, and the second being that polio does not always present in the most severe form. 

Later, in 1908, two scientists named Karl Landsteiner, MD, and Erwin Popper, MD successfully isolated and identified polio. They made this discovery when transmitting polio to a monkey, proving that polio was a virus. Finally, in 1910, research by Dr. Simon Flexner sparked the idea of a vaccine to combat polio. Polio continued to spread around the globe, with between 25,000 and 50,000 new cases per year. In the most extreme cases, polio caused paralysis and death, and in the milder cases, it appeared as flu-like symptoms. 

In 1916, a massive polio epidemic swept the US with 27,000 cases and 6,000 deaths. A statement from the Los Angeles Times says, “Many inspectors … stationed themselves at the railroad stations, ferries, and boat landings along the Delaware River … to bar all children under 16 years of age who attempted to cross into Pennsylvania without certificates of health.” Cities began taking extensive precautions to protect their citizens when the dangers of polio became more apparent. As the infection and death rates continued climbing, so did the necessity of a vaccine. There were many failures before the correct engineering of the polio vaccine was discovered. The most significant failure occurred in 1955 when a field trial was conducted for the vaccine. 400,000 people, mostly children, were injected with Salk’s vaccine. The inactivated form of the virus turned out to be defective as 40,000 of the children who were injected, acquired the disease. One account of a child who became afflicted after the field trial is as follows: “Five days later, she developed fever and neck stiffness. Six days later, her left arm was paralyzed. Seven days later, she was placed in an iron lung, and nine days later, she was dead.” This costly error permanently paralyzed or prematurely ended the lives of many children across the US. However, this mistake did not stop Salk’s search for the vaccine. After years of searching, the first successful polio vaccine was engineered. This was accomplished in 1955, and an oral vaccine was created later in 1962. 

The original vaccine, which was engineered by Jonas Salk, was created by using an inactivated form of the polio virus. When Salk was asked about the vaccine, he stated, “It is safe, and you can’t get safer than safe.” It is clear that Salk was very confident in the effectiveness and safety of the vaccine he had created. His confidence was justified because after only one year of the vaccine being widely available to the public, there were fewer than 6,000 new polio cases. Later, the Oral Vaccine, which was engineered by Albert Sabin, helped to facilitate the spread of the vaccine. Eventually, Sabin’s vaccine became more widely used that Salk’s. 

The creation of these vaccines drastically decreased the infection rate of polio across the globe. Even though the polio Vaccine has saved countless lives, there are still many people who oppose it. One of these groups, called Islamic Fundamentalists, believe that they must adhere to strict codes and religious practices in the Qur’an. These practices have led to the failure of the polio eradication in Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. This spread caused previously polio-free districts to become infected once again. One of the most prominent Islamic Groups battling the vaccine is Boko Haram. According to a new US report from Stratfor, a risk analysis group, “Boko Haram is largely responsible for the insecurity that has hamstrung vaccination efforts in Nigeria.” The efforts of this group have greatly slowed the progress being made by the polio eradication programs. 

The Taliban has also contributed to the spread of the disease by issuing Fatwas, which are formal rulings in Islamic law. They use these Fatwas to spread the idea that vaccines are an American ploy and that vaccinations are being used to sterilize Muslim populations. These Taliban groups have also assassinated vaccination officials and kidnapped vaccinators to try and end the spread of the vaccine. These practices have greatly slowed the eradication process across the globe. While progress towards a polio-free world was slowed, programs have been created to advance the eradication process. 

The March of Dimes, previously called The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, was created by President Roosevelt. He created this foundation after being diagnosed with the disease and became motivated to help end the polio epidemic. Basil O’Connor, the President of the March of Dimes, speaks about this foundation, saying, “I have just figured out that during the coming summer, thirty or forty thousand children will get polio. About fifteen thousand of them will be paralyzed and more a thousand will die. If we have the capacity to prevent this, we have a social responsibility … we are supported by the people and it’s our duty to save lives no matter how many difficulties to be involved”. These foundations were created with hopes of ending the epidemic, including the Global polio Eradication Initiative. The GPEI was created to highlight the importance of the cause to end polio. 

This program has led to 2.5 million vaccinations nationwide by actively creating strategies to reach children across the globe. The GPEI has also caused a drastic decrease in polio cases. Dropping the number of cases of polio paralysis from 350,000 in 1988, when the GPEI was created, to 359 cases in 2014. The amount of countries that are considered endemic has also had an immense drop since the creation of the GPEI. In 1988 there were 125 countries endemic for polio. In contrast, there were only 3 endemic countries in 2014. These include Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria. While polio is not yet completely eradicated, the infection rate has drastically decreased and the vaccine has led to the eradication of polio in many parts of the world. The polio epidemic caused death and devastation across the globe until a vaccine was engineered to stop the spread of the disease. There were many difficulties in the vaccine’s creation and opposition from religious groups. Regardless, the vaccine proved to be triumphant as the disease has nearly been eradicated. The polio vaccine has saved millions of lives all over the world and triumphantly ended a global epidemic. 

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Polio Vaccine: From Tragedy to a Triumph of Modern Medicine. (2022, August 01). GradesFixer. Retrieved October 1, 2022, from
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