October 28 – Smooth As Salk

Today’s factismal: In 1916 in the US alone, there were more than 27,000 new cases of polio that paralyzed thousands and killed 6,000 people. In 2012 for the entire world, there were just 223 new cases of polio and no deaths or paralyzations.

In the early part of the last century, one of the most-feared diseases was polio. The disease would die down every fall and flare back up every summer, causing public pools and parks to be closed, meetings to be cancelled, and warnings about drinking from fountains. But what was even worse were the effects of polio its victims. Though it was a mild disease for some, it caused twisted limbs, partial paralysis, and even death in many others. Its rapid onset, unpredictable outcome, and tendency to strike among the upper class made it one of the world’s most feared diseases.

A ward full of polio patients (Image courtesy US NIH)

A ward full of polio patients
(Image courtesy US NIH)

Oddly enough, polio had been known since Egyptian times but hadn’t become epidemic until the 1880s. Current medical researchers think that the polio epidemics of the last century were an unintended consequence of better sanitation. Poorer sanitation exposed people to low levels of the virus, creating a natural immunity that prevented the disease from spreading rapidly. Once the sanitation improved, the low-level exposure to polio went away and the epidemics began. (Improving sanitation also removed much more dangerous diseases such as cholera, typhoid, and tetanus.) That’s why the epidemics were more common in affluent communities. What was worse was that the epidemics were becoming more common and more devastating as public health increased across the world.

A victim of polio (Image courtesy US NIH)

A victim of polio
(Image courtesy US NIH)

But telling people to start living in filth wasn’t the way to prevent the disease; vaccinations were. For decades, scientists searched for a reliable polio vaccine. And, in 1955, Jonas Salk succeeded. Following a massive trial that took seven years and involved more than 1.2 million schoolchildren, he produced the first practical polio vaccine. Amazingly, he refused to patent the vaccine or the process used to make it. As a result, the vaccine was made available across the globe at little or no cost to the patient. This led to Czechoslovakia becoming the first country being declared polio free just five years after Salk released his vaccine.

Thanks to Salk’s vaccine, and the even less expensive and safer variant created by Sabin a few years later, for most of the world polio has changed from a scourge to a memory. Without the vaccine, there would be two million cases each year, killing nearly half a million people and leaving another 750,000 paralyzed. With the vaccine, polio has been eradicated in all but three countries (Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria). If you’d like to help make polio a memory in those three remaining countries, then make certain that you and your family have had your vaccinations, and join the Global Polio Eradication Initiative:

3 thoughts on “October 28 – Smooth As Salk

  1. Pingback: August 1 – Pokey Dokey | Little facts about science

  2. Pingback: August 19 – Going, Going,… | Little facts about science

  3. Pingback: August 1 – A Real Shot In The Arm | Little facts about science

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s