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What People Can Learn From The Discovery Of A Polio Vaccine


Most health experts say a vaccine will be needed to end the COVID-19 pandemic. It wouldn't be the first time a vaccine ended a disease that terrorized Americans. In the 1950s, people waited anxiously for scientists to come up with a way to prevent children from coming down with infantile paralysis, better known as polio.

NPR's Joe Palca has the story of the bumpy road to a polio vaccine and the lessons it holds for today's health crisis.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: There's something familiar about this newsreel footage.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Here in Middletown, N.Y., a typical American town is caught in the fearful, silent grip of infantile paralysis. School closed because of polio. School closed.

DAVID OSHINSKY: There was - you know, there was a lot of anxiety.

PALCA: That's New York University Medical historian David Oshinsky, author of "Polio: An American Story." Unlike COVID-19, by the 1950s, polio was a familiar threat. Even former President Franklin D. Roosevelt had been stricken with it as a child.

OSHINSKY: So it'd been around for quite a while. And then certainly by the end of World War II, it had become a summer plague just sort of hitting the United States again and again and again at the same time of year.

PALCA: Then, as now, scientists felt a vaccine was the only way to end the epidemic. But Oshinsky says then, the government played very little role in coming up with one.

OSHINSKY: There was no federal research being done at this time. I mean, the NIH was this teeny, little organization, so it was basically up to a private charity to deal with this.

PALCA: The charity was the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, today known as the March of Dimes. There were several teams working on a vaccine, but the foundation focused on two. One was a more traditional vaccine being developed by a well-regarded virologist named Albert Sabin. Oshinsky says the other was a less studied approach using a virus killed with formaldehyde developed by a more junior scientist named Jonas Salk.

OSHINSKY: They gave both camps a lot of money, but it was clear that Salk's camp could produce the quicker vaccine.

PALCA: Millions of parents volunteered their children to be part of the March of Dimes' trial of the vaccine.

MARCIA MELDRUM: I don't even know if we could do this on (ph) polio vaccine trial today because I don't know if there's an organization that has the same level of trust.

PALCA: Marcia Meldrum is a social scientist at UCLA. The trial took place in the spring of 1954, and the vaccine was approved for distribution a year later.

MELDRUM: The public health service immediately licensed five different pharmaceutical firms to produce it. And one of them did not do a good job.

PALCA: Mysteriously, some children develop symptoms of polio after receiving the vaccine. It turned out there was a problem with the vaccine made by Cutter Laboratories. The company's manufacturing process did not fully kill the virus they used to make their vaccine. And as a result, hundreds of children who got the Cutter vaccine got polio, and some died. The debacle with the Cutter laboratory shattered public trust in the vaccine, though once the problem was identified and fixed, people started getting vaccinated again.

Historian David Oshinsky says the story of the Salk vaccine is one of the great success stories of American medical research.

OSHINSKY: Through the largest public health experiment in American history, they produced this remarkable result, but that in the end, you know, Cutter also tells you, you got to be cautious. You know, you can't do it too quickly.

PALCA: Joe Palca, NPR News.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: An earlier broadcast version of this story said that President Franklin D. Roosevelt was stricken by polio as a child. He became infected with polio as an adult.]

(SOUNDBITE OF DIGITALISM'S "MIRAGE, PT. 1") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.

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