April 12, 1955 — vaccine vanquishes polio 65 years ago
As Americans combat the COVID-19 virus, we can find inspiration in the breaking news of April 12, 1955. On that day 65 years ago, Americans learned about one of medicine’s greatest achievements, the polio vaccine.
“Polio Threat Conquered by Salk Vaccine,” the Arkansas Democrat declared on its front page that Dr. Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine had proven effective after a large clinical trial evaluating nearly 2 million children. “Ann Arbor Michigan (AP)—The Salk polio vaccine works—safely, potently—and can virtually end the icy fear that long has gripped the hearts of parents.”
For years Americans had lived in fear of the crippling virus known as polio, which is short for poliomyelitis. The first polio outbreak in the United States took place in Vermont in 1894 and infected more than 100 people. Another epidemic hit New York in 1916 with 9,000 cases and 2,343 deaths. More epidemics followed in the late 1940s and early 1950s, with Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas as hotspots.
“Between 1949 and 1954, 35 percent of those who contracted polio were adults,” while 65 percent affected were children and teenagers. In the United States, polio crippled an average of 35,000 people a year. The number of U.S. cases in 1952 reached more than 57,000.
My mother, Judy Travis, lost the use of her right shoulder when she was four-years-old after she was infected by polio in 1949. Several months later, she became the March of Dimes poster child for Pulaski County in Little Rock, Arkansas, and raised money for the vaccine. Americans around the nation pooled their loose change to fund Salk’s vaccine.
The San Antonio Express touted Salk’s historical significance: “Salk Vaccine Top Discovery in 166 years.” The announcement date was also historic because ten years earlier on April 12, 1945, Franklin D. Roosevelt, a polio sufferer, had died while president. The scientists purposefully released the news of the vaccine on the anniversary of his death to honor him. Roosevelt had started the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, whose March of Dimes campaigns became legendary.
Declaring the “end to polio’s long reign of terror,” The Dallas Morning News reported on April 13 that: “The vaccine is far better than the vaccine tested last year, and it can theoretically prevent paralytic polio 100 percent, declared Dr. Jonas Salk, the brilliant young Pittsburgh, Pa., scientist who developed it.”
Children received two shots of the vaccine, two to four weeks apart, and then the third shot seven months later. “Dr. Salk finds this spacing best pulls the trigger of the body’s gun mechanism, flooding billions of protective antibodies into the bloodstream. It is these antibodies which builds a wall between children and paralytic polio.”
Within two years, polio cases dropped by 80 to 90 percent. By 1979 wild polio was eradicated in the United States, with future U.S. cases originating in other nations.
Eradicating COVID-19 also requires a vaccine or antibody therapy. “Ultimately the show stopper will be obviously the vaccine where you can vaccinate people,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, said at the Coronavirus Task Force press conference on April 6, 2020, of the projected final solution for this pandemic.
In contrast to the decades-long search for the polio vaccine, Fauci hopes that a vaccine will be tested and distributed in record time, 12 to 18 months. Unlike the Salk vaccine that inserted dead virus into the body, a COVID-19 vaccine is likely to be a DNA vaccine or an injection of engineered antibodies to the virus.
Researchers at INOVIO Pharmaceuticals have already “packaged a section of the (COVID-19) virus’ genetic code inside a piece of synthetic DNA. Injected as a vaccine, the cells act as a mini-factory to produce harmless protein copies. The immune system makes protective antibodies against them — primed if the real virus ever comes along.”
Still another option is similar to a treatment used against Ebola. Distributed Bio co-founder and CEO Dr. Jacob Glanville is a San Francisco doctor featured in the Netflix documentary “Pandemic.” Glanville and his team have engineered antibodies that neutralize and block the COVID-19 virus. Their work will now be tested by the U.S. military.
“You could give it to a patient who’s sick, experiencing COVID-19, then within 20 minutes of receiving the shot, their body is flooded with those antibodies,” Glanville said. “Those antibodies will surround and stick all over a virus and make it so it’s no longer infectious. You could also give it to a doctor or a nurse or an elderly person and they would then have those antibodies in them that would prevent them from getting infected in the first place.”
Because this blocking process currently only lasts eight to ten weeks, this approach is fast-acting but a temporary vaccine or bridge solution. In the meantime, many doctors are trying legal off-label use of hydroxychloroquine, a drug used for malaria, lupus and arthritis. One physician recounted a Lazarus experience with the drug.
“Tucker, I want to tell you about a 96-year-old man in Florida who said one night, ‘I don’t think I’m going to make it. I feel very weak. The end is coming. I’m coughing, I’m short of breath, I can’t get up from the couch,’” Fox News medical correspondent Dr. Marc Siegel recently told anchor Tucker Carlson. “The next day he was on hydroxychloroquine and antibiotics, per his cardiologist, he got up the next day, he was fine.”
“This man is my father, Tucker,” Siegel said, shocking his host. A Michigan state representative, Karen Whitsett (D) had a similar experience with the medication.
On this anniversary of the Salk vaccine, which is also Easter Sunday, let us marvel at the accomplishments of the past, the miracles of science and the hope that these medications can vanquish this virus and put us on the road to recovery as a nation.
Jane Hampton Cook is the author of “America’s Star-Spangled Story” and “The Burning of the White House: James and Dolley Madison and the War of 1812.” She is a former White House webmaster for President George W. Bush.