Illustration of Polio vaccine

1955 Polio vaccine

The book of science

Tom Sharp

John Franklin Enders, Thomas Huckle Weller, Frederick Chapman Robbins, Jonas Salk, Albert Sabin immunology Illustration of Polio vaccine

Polio vaccine

Polio, poliomyelitis, causes paralysis and death. A half million people worldwide were affected in the 1940s and 1950s. In 1949, 2,720 people in the United States died of polio. In 1952, 3,145 died and 21,269 suffered mild to disabling paralysis. In 1953, 35,000 people caught polio. In 1949, Enders, Weller, and Robbins managed to grow poliovirus in a test tube and they got a Nobel Prize for this in 1954. Salk used the Enders-Weller-Robbins technique and immortal HeLa cells to grow poliovirus for testing and created a polio vaccine in 1952. Human trials followed, starting with a small test in 1953, then in 1954 in the largest medical trial in history innoculating 440 thousand children in 44 states. In 1955, The March of Dimes launched a national campaign to administer the Salk vaccine.

Dead or alive

Meanwhile, other scientists thought that Salk was wrong and resented that he got all the attention although he relied on the work of others. Salk insist on an inactivated “dead” virus that was administered by injection. Although it was not 100% effective it was totally safe and lasted longer. Albert Sabin created an attenuated “live” virus that was administered orally. It was easier to administer and more effective; however, it caused polio in some cases. Today, both vaccines are used, the Salk vaccine in the U.S. and the Sabine vaccine in other parts of the world.

Polio limp

Tom Howard had a limp from nerve damage after a polio infection before the vaccine improved our chances of avoiding polio. People panicked when someone in town caught it. Some lost their ability to breathe and survived only on iron lungs. Some lost their ability to walk, or could walk only with awkward leg braces. But Tom Howard survived with his limp. I often wonder what it means to suffer a tragedy and survive. Does it mean you were lucky? Lucky? Today, in the U.S. we have no polio cases; our luck overflows and hardly anyone notices.

Disregarding the base probability is called the base-rate fallacy. Given that one is forced to suffer, one is lucky to survive; however, everyone isn’t forced to suffer.

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