While the world turns to science and medicine to find a vaccine that would make us all safe, I remember a long-ago time when the world faced another deadly disease. And how a vaccine, the result of years of dedicated research, led to the triumphant defeat of that disease.
Covid-19 poses a special threat. It’s a new virus that has baffled medical researchers, and those of us who wake up every day feeling OK are left wondering whether we’re asymptomatic carriers of the virus or just damned lucky. So far.
Testing and the development of effective therapies are essential. But our ultimate salvation will come with the development of a vaccine.
Overwhelming everything else right now is fear. Fear that the slightest contact with the virus can cause a horrible assault on one’s body, possibly leading to hospitalization and, finally, death.
I recognize that feeling of fear. Anyone growing up in America in the late 1940s and the early 1950s will recognize it.
Those of us who were conscious at that time remember the scourge of polio. And although the fear caused by Covid-19 today is infinitely worse, the fear of polio was in many ways the same.
People were aware of the disease called polio for a long time. It was noted as early as the 19th century, and in 1908 two scientists identified a virus as its cause.
Before polio vaccines were available, U.S, outbreaks caused over 15,000 cases of paralysis every year. In the late 1940s, outbreaks increased in frequency and size, resulting in an average of 35,000 victims of paralysis each year. Parents feared letting their children go outside, especially in the summer, when the virus seemed to peak, and some public health official imposed quarantines.
Polio appeared in several different forms. 95% of the cases were asymptomatic. Others were mild, and most people recovered quickly. But some victims suffered temporary or permanent paralysis and even death.
[When HIV-AIDS first appeared, it created the same sort of fear. It was a new disease with an unknown cause, and this led to widespread fear. There is still no vaccine, and until there is, the development of life-saving drugs has lessened the fear of the disease.]
When I was growing up, polio was an omnipresent and very scary disease. Every year, children and their parents received warnings from public health officials, especially in the summer. We were warned against going to communal swimming pools and large gatherings where the virus might spread.
We saw images on TV of polio’s unlucky victims. The images were in black and white but clear enough to show kids my age who were suddenly trapped inside an iron lung, watched over by nurses who attended to their basic needs while they struggled to breathe. Then there were the images of young people valiantly trying to walk on crutches, as well as those confined to wheelchairs. They were the lucky ones. Because we knew that the disease also killed a lot of people.
So every summer, I worried about catching polio, and when colder weather returned each fall, I was grateful that I had survived one more summer without catching it.
I was too young to remember President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but I later learned that he had contracted polio in 1921 at the age of 39. He had a serious case, causing paralysis. When he founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, it soon became the March of Dimes. The phrase “march of dimes” was coined by actor/comedian/singer Eddie Cantor funds. Echoing a name like the newsreel The March of Time, Cantor announced on a 1938 radio program that the March of Dimes would begin collecting dimes to support research into polio and help victims who survived the disease. (Because polio ultimately succumbed to a vaccine, the March of Dimes evolved into a charity focused on preventing birth defects.)
For years, the March of Dimes funded medical research aimed at a vaccine, and one of its recipients was a young physician named Jonas Salk. Salk became a superhero when he announced on April 12, 1955, that his research had led to the creation of a vaccine that was “safe, effective, and potent.”
Salk had worked toward the goal of a vaccine for years, especially when he was recruited to be the director of the Virus Research Laboratory at the University Of Pittsburgh School Of Medicine. There he created a vaccine composed of “killed” polio virus. He first administered it to volunteers who included himself and his family. After they developed anti-polio antibodies and experienced no negative reactions, a massive field trial tested the vaccine on over one million children, allowing Salk to make his astonishing announcement in 1955.
I remember the day I first learned about the Salk vaccine. It was earthshaking. It changed everything. It represented a tremendous scientific breakthrough that, over time, relieved the anxiety of millions of American children and their parents.
But it wasn’t immediately available. It took about two years before enough of the vaccine was produced to make it available to everyone.
Because we couldn’t get the vaccine for some time, the fear of polio lingered. I recall sitting in my school gym one day, looking at the other students, and wondering whether I might still catch it from one of them.
My reaction was eerily like John Kerry’s demand when he testified before a Senate committee in 1971: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam?” I remember thinking how terrible it would be to be one of the last kids to catch polio when the vaccine existed but I hadn’t been able to get it yet.
Of course, I eventually got my injection, and life changed irreversibly. Never again would I live in fear of contracting polio.
In 1962, the Salk vaccine was replaced by Dr. Albert Sabin’s orally-administered vaccine, both easier to give and less expensive, and I soon received that as well.
Neither Salk nor Sabin patented their discoveries or earned any profits from them, preferring that their vaccines be made widely available at a low price rather than exploited by others
Today, confronting the Covid-19 virus, no thinking person can avoid the fear of becoming one of its victims. But as scientists and medical doctors continue to search for a vaccine, I’m reminded of how long those of us who were children in the 1950s waited for that to happen.
Valiant efforts, much like those of Jonas Salk, are aimed at creating a safe and effective vaccine. And there are encouraging signs. Scientists at Oxford University in the UK were already working on a vaccine to defeat another form of the coronavirus when Covid-19 appeared, and they have pivoted to defeat the new threat. Clinical trials may be happening already.
Similarly, Harvard researchers are working hard to develop a vaccine and plan to launch clinical trials in the fall.
While the world waits, let’s hope that a life-saving vaccine will appear much more quickly than the polio vaccine did. With today’s improved technology, and a successful history of creating vaccines to kill deadly viruses, maybe we can reach that goal quickly. Only then, when we are all able get an effective vaccine, will our lives begin to return to anything resembling “normal.”