Polio vaccine hailed as a turning point

Science: 50 years ago today it was pronounced effective, opening doors into disease research.

April 12, 2005|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Swimming pools closed. Businesses were quarantined. Hospitals transported infected patients in special ambulances. Worried citizens avoided crowds by staying away from buses and theaters.

That's how Maryland, and much of America, coped with the polio epidemics that swept through the country in the 1950s.

"Your parents would tell you, don't get overly tired and don't get too close to crowds. Then the summer would come and they'd close the pools and that would be it," said Richard Holland, 72, who grew up in Catonsville and graduated from Baltimore Polytechnic Institute in 1951.

But that began to change 50 years ago today, when scientists announced that a polio vaccine developed by a young researcher named Jonas Salk had proven safe and effective in a clinical trial.

The mass vaccinations that followed ushered in what many consider the modern era of vaccine development, convincing a skeptical public that medical research could, in fact, work wonders to eradicate diseases given sufficient funds.

"It provided a path toward prevention not only of this disease, but it opened the door for development of a number of other vaccines," said Dr. Neal Halsey, director of the Institute for Vaccine Safety at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The polio effort spurred research that led to vaccines for measles, mumps, rubella and influenza. It also opened a door that researchers still use in their efforts against AIDS, avian flu, malaria and other infectious diseases that are second only to cardiovascular problems as the leading cause of death worldwide.

"I think it was one of the best examples we have of how fundamental research can be interlinked with a very human application," said Rita Colwell, a University of Maryland scientist and former director of the National Science Foundation.

To test its effectiveness and prove its safety, the original Salk vaccine was put through the largest clinical trial the world had ever seen. Some 440,000 children were injected as part of a $7.5 million research effort funded by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, which later became the March of Dimes.

Although vaccines against smallpox, diphtheria and tetanus had been developed years earlier, Salk was one of the first to take advantage of a new technique for growing polio viruses, using tissue cultures.

In fact, researchers John Enders, Frederick Robbins and Thomas Weller eventually won a Nobel Prize for their groundbreaking tissue culture work in the 1940s, an honor that escaped Salk and Sabin.

Enders and his team deserved the Nobel, many experts say, because their discovery made it easier to study other viruses and develop more vaccines.

Polio, of course, had been around since ancient times, and was identified as a specific disease as early as the 1840s. It was never as widespread as influenza, and most of those who contracted it survived.

But by middle of the 20th century, no disease inspired as much fear. The mysterious virus had crippled President Franklin D. Roosevelt and confined thousands, mostly children, to coffin-like respirators. Polio was every parent's nightmare.

"We had iron lungs all over the place, and you were always worried about an outbreak," said Dr. Frank M. Calia, 68, now chief medical officer at the University of Maryland Medical Center.

So it was that news of the polio vaccine, coming on the 10th anniversary of Roosevelt's death, generated a massive wave of relief and made Salk a national hero.

"It was a tremendous achievement, coming up with that vaccine," said Dr. John W. Littlefield, 79, a retired researcher and former director of the Johns Hopkins Children's Center.

On the same day as the announcement, federal officials licensed six pharmaceutical firms to make the vaccine. Within a week, the first truckloads arrived in Baltimore and state health officials began vaccinating 140,000 schoolchildren across Maryland.

"You were just told you had to take it. I don't think anybody was given a choice," said Stanley Nusenko, 59, who lined up for the shots with other fifth-grade students at Howard Park Elementary School.

Fear of polio's consequences helped Nusenko put up with a series of three injections, spread over several weeks. "If there was anything that stuck in your mind, it was those iron lungs," said Nusenko, a retired federal management analyst who lives in Westminster.

The vaccine distribution process had it bumps, but local doctors don't recall panic over shortages, or outlandishly long lines. "It was a different world then. We ordered the vaccine, we got it, we gave it out, that was it," said Dr. Henry Seidel, 82, a retired pediatrician who gave shots to children at his office in the 1400 block of Eutaw St.

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