America Declares War on Polio and Saves Children’s Lives


This guest post was contributed by Phil Kadner, an award-winning Chicago journalist.

By the thousands American parents volunteered their children in what would eventually be called the country’s first national vaccination campaign.

In 1954, in the largest field trial ever attempted, more than 600,000 school children stuck their arms out to be injected. About 400,000 would get Dr. Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine and 200,000 a placebo.

It is nearly impossible to understand today the terror felt by families in the first half of the 20th century by infantile paralysis, more commonly called polio today. Hundreds of young children died annually, with tens of thousands more paralyzed for life when the disease attacked their nervous systems.

President Franklin Roosevelt, the most famous victim, made defeating the disease a national priority, and millions of Americans donated money to the March of Dimes in an effort to eradicate the ailment.

Dr. Jonas Salk’s vaccine proved to be 70 to 80 percent effective in its initial trial, which involved 150,000 volunteer nurses and doctors across the country and public health departments from 38 states.

So impressed was Congress by the results that it passed the Polio Assistance Act of 1955. Signed by President Dwight Eisenhower, this law provided a $30 million grant to assist states in vaccinating children, with $25 million to be used in purchasing vaccine and $5 million covering the cost of planning and conducting immunization programs. The federal government implemented a plan to have the vaccine produced by six licensed pharmacies.

In 1954, 1,300 Americans were killed and more than 18,000 crippled by polio. Within a year of the national vaccination program’s launch, that number was cut by 50 percent.

By the 1960s the number of polio cases causing paralysis had gone from an average of 15,000 a year in the U.S. to 100, and by the 1970s that total was reduced to 10 a year. Finally, the Center for Disease Control would declare that not a single case of polio had originated in the United States.

Called “The Greatest Public Health Experiment in History,” the vaccinations had their flaws. One lab accidentally included a live virus in its vaccines infecting 200 people with polio and killing 11.

Yet, remarkably, after a brief halt in the program, people continued to send their children for inoculations.

In the early 1960s, Dr. Albert Sabin developed a live virus oral vaccine distributed in public schools throughout the country. Once again, Americans volunteered for the program, putting their trust in science and their government leaders.

It should be noted that after inoculating 100 adults in his initial trial, Sabin injected himself, his wife and his children, as well as his neighbors, with the vaccine.

As the largest donor to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, the U.S. government has since helped reduce the number of polio cases worldwide from 350,000 in 1988 to only a handful of cases in three countries in 2016.

From 1,000 children in the world being paralyzed every day, government efforts have practically eradicated the disease.

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