The Polio Epidemic and Vaccine Backlash: Remembering Jonas Salk
the MPR take:
Jonas Salk, who died in 1995, would have turned 100 today but his legacy lives on in the polio vaccine that he introduced in 1955. In 1952 there were almost 60,000 cases of polio in the U.S., but thanks to the vaccine the recurring epidemics were eliminated by 97% in the early 1960s. Using the same principles for creating protective immune responses to bacterial diseases, Dr. Salk inactivated the polio virus to introduce antibodies into the bloodstream to protect against the virus entering the nervous system and causing paralysis. Despite evidence from a double-blind study in 1954 of 1.8 million school-aged children on the effectiveness of the polio vaccine, some believed that the disappearance of polio was due to factors other than the vaccine. Jonas’ son Peter, a medical researcher at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, believes that as the numbers for diseases like polio began to decline due to vaccinations, public distrust in governments and institutions increased; this has continued to build and contribute to the present anti-vaccination movement. Although polio has been largely eradicated in many countries, others with cultural, religious, and political differences have not yet been able to eliminate the virus due to these factors limiting outreach effects. Dr. Salk famously refused to patent the vaccine that could have made him billions of dollars, but the profound public health impact of his work is priceless.
On the 100th anniversary of Jonas Salk's birth, his son Peter talks about the backlash against vaccines and other human factors that make it difficult to eradicate deadly viruses. In the peak year of 1952, there were nearly 60,000 cases throughout America; 3,000 were fatal, and 21,000 left their victims paralyzed. Murrow asked him who owned the patent to the vaccine, Salk famously replied, “Well, the people, I would say.
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