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50 Years After Vaccine, Polio's Legacy Endures

Era Marked by Panic, Then Relief, Shaped Lives and Medical Research

By Susan Levine
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 10, 2005; Page C01

Church bells pealed. Car horns blared. The enemy that had laid waste to thousands was on the run, and on that morning 50 years ago, Americans rejoiced.

In a single, electrifying moment, they'd learned that Jonas Salk and a team of researchers had developed a vaccine that could conquer poliomyelitis, one of the most dreaded diseases of the 20th century.


Lauro Halstead, a physician who runs a post-polio program at an area hospital, rides through Rock Creek Park with son Alex. Halstead contracted polio in 1954. (Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)

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The formula, a triple strain of dead polio virus, was an approach many scientists had expected would fail. The Salk team had tested it in the largest clinical trial in history, an experiment in which nearly 2 million youngsters took part. Now the results were in.

"The vaccine works," the announcement declared. "It is safe, effective and potent."

The news, a watershed in medicine, made Salk a national hero. And it changed life forever in cities large and small. It brought an end to summers of shuttered movie theaters, padlocked swimming pools and abandoned beaches, an end to the relentless onslaught of headlines reporting the latest polio epidemic. No longer would families be haunted by the specter of paralysis -- or death.

"The hope that it offered was tremendous," said John Sever, an infectious disease pediatrician at Children's National Medical Center who was then a Chicago medical student caring for young victims of the virus. He still can hear the sound of their iron lungs, the massive mechanical tubes that kept the most critically ill alive by forcing air in and out of their bodies.

"A terrible grinding, clinking noise," he recalled, softened only by the faint sibilance of leaking oxygen.

Fifty years later, the achievement of April 12, 1955, again is being celebrated: at the University of Pittsburgh, where Salk and colleagues labored feverishly for nearly a decade; at the University of Michigan, where their success was announced before an overflow crowd; in Boston, where others had done the groundbreaking research into how the virus could be grown in quantity; in La Jolla, Calif., home to the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.

Washington plans to mark the anniversary at the Smithsonian Institution. A gathering tomorrow with Salk's youngest son and the granddaughter of the disease's most famous casualty, Franklin D. Roosevelt, will herald Tuesday's opening of "Whatever Happened to Polio?" at the National Museum of American History. Like the other events, the exhibit will look backward and forward in exploring the advances the campaign brought about and the ethical issues it raised.

A Persistent Threat

The United States has been polio-free for more than a quarter-century, trailed by the rest of the Western Hemisphere, then by the countries of the Western Pacific and then, in 2002, by Europe.

But while so close, the world has not vanquished the virus. It remains endemic in six Asian and African nations, and on those continents, even after immunization initiatives finally halt transmission, polio will not disappear quickly given the millions afflicted.

Sever has witnessed the most pitiful on his repeated trips to assist the eradication effort. Many are street beggars who move their contorted bodies along on hands and knees. "The crawlers," they are called.

Though the disease and its menace have faded from this country's consciousness, the impact of how both were overcome continues to be felt. Salk's work was financed largely by individual Americans' response to the door-to-door fundraising of mothers and to the appeal of the winsome, scrubbed-fresh faces of polio's poster children. Its aftermath, however, ushered in a new era of government funding and surveillance of medical research. (The wholesale testing on hundreds of thousands of monkeys, on prisoners and on institutionalized children never would be permitted today.)

A host of other childhood vaccines soon followed, accompanied by shifting public expectations that immunizations should be made available to all regardless of income or race. Critics who decried socialized medicine were more or less quieted.


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