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Polio Vaccine's 50th Anniversary

polio vaccine station
People standing in line at a polio immunization station outside a local grocery store in Columbus, Georgia, 1961.
Credit: CDC/Charles N. Farmer

April 12, 2005 marked the 50th anniversary of the development of the first effective poliovirus vaccine. On that day in 1955, reporters gathered at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor to hear the groundbreaking news that a vaccine had been developed that prevented the dreaded complication of infection with the poliovirus—spinal cord destruction resulting in muscle degeneration.

Dr. Jonas Salk, a 40-year old physician, and his team of researchers at the University of Pittsburgh had developed a vaccine to stop an infection that each year killed up to a half million people,1 primarily children, and paralyzed many more. Dr. Thomas Francis of the University of Michigan led a massive clinical trial to test the vaccine in 1.8 million children in 44 states.

Those who lived through the time of poliomyelitis (known in lay terms as polio) epidemics remember the fear that gripped the nation each summer. Parents were terrified that their children would contract the disease as they watched health department officials post Quarantine signs on neighbors' homes. Festivities involving large gatherings of people, including Fourth of July celebrations, were cancelled. Swimming pools were closed. Wild rumors circulated about possible causes of the dreaded disease, including ice cream cones, white clothing, earthquakes, volcanoes, excessive glare, sunburn, and electrical disturbances.2 Children stricken with the disease suffered paralysis that sometimes made it impossible to breathe on their own, forcing them to live inside huge metal ventilators known as iron lungs, the thought of which caused widespread fear.

iron lung
Some polio patients depended on iron lungs such as this one to breathe after being paralyzed with this devastating virus.
Credit: CDC/GHO/Mary Hilpertshauser

The development of a vaccine to prevent poliovirus disease was considered nothing short of a miracle. The safe and effective vaccine was the first step toward eliminating the disease in the United States. We are now on the cusp of eradicating polio worldwide. When this is accomplished, polio will be the second major infectious disease to be eradicated, the first being smallpox, although the threat of intentional release of smallpox remains.

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases is pleased to celebrate the 50th anniversary of this monumental accomplishment. Vaccines have come a long way since 1955. Today, NIAID supports the development of vaccines for the entire spectrum of infectious agents-- bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites—and helps to establish novel strategies for vaccine delivery. With support from NIAID, vaccines have been developed to prevent important diseases, including pneumococcal disease and influenza; and improved smallpox and anthrax vaccines are currently being tested.

physical exam for polio
An officer from the Epidemic Intelligence Service uses muscle evaluation tests for polio on this young patient.
Credit: CDC

Core components of NIAID's vaccine program include the Dale and Betty Bumpers Vaccine Research Center (VRC), the Division of Intramural Research, and the Vaccine and Treatment Evaluation Units (VTEUs). The VRC is dedicated to improving global human health through the rigorous pursuit of effective vaccines for human diseases. Scientists in NIAID's Division of Intramural Research conduct basic and clinical research and provide training opportunities for physicians and scientists in immunology, allergy, and infectious diseases, including vaccine development.

NIAID's Division of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases supports the VTEUs, a network of research hospitals across the United States that conduct clinical trials to evaluate vaccine efficacy as well as safety, which is an integral part of every vaccine clinical trial sponsored by NIAID. A VTEU trial evaluated the impact of inactivated versus oral poliovirus vaccines when given with a combined vaccine against other infectious diseases. As a result of the study, health experts now recommend that children in the United States receive the inactivated poliovirus vaccine as part of their routine immunizations. This represents a major change in medical practice because for many years, the oral poliovirus vaccine was the vaccine of choice in the United States.

The legacy of the first effective polio vaccine continues to inspire researchers. Over the last half century, advances in vaccinology have enabled us to graduate from the choice between live and killed vaccines to an array of technological options. With the tremendous ability of vaccines to reduce morbidity and mortality, these latest advances hold great promise for conquering more infectious diseases in the future. Research leading to new and improved vaccines is an important part of the NIAID mission.

children in polio braces
A physical therapist assists two polio-stricken children with exercising their lower limbs. (1963)
Credit: CDC/Charles Farmer


2Smithsonian, v 36, no 1, April 2005.

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Last Updated February 03, 2007