Monday, March 26, 2007

March 26:


On March 26, 1953, American medical researcher Dr. Jonas Salk
announces on a national radio show that he has successfully tested a
vaccine against poliomyelitis, the virus that causes the crippling
disease of polio. In 1952--an epidemic year for polio--there were
58,000 new cases reported in the United States, and more than 3,000
died from the disease. For promising eventually to eradicate the
disease, which is known as "infant paralysis" because it mainly
affects children, Dr. Salk was celebrated as the great
doctor-benefactor of his time.

Polio, a disease that has affected humanity throughout recorded
history, attacks the nervous system and can cause varying degrees of
paralysis. Since the virus is easily transmitted, epidemics were
commonplace in the first decades of the 20th century. The first major
polio epidemic in the United States occurred in Vermont in the summer
of 1894, and by the 20th century thousands were affected every year.
In the first decades of the 20th century, treatments were limited to
quarantines and the infamous "iron lung," a metal coffin-like
contraption that aided respiration. Although children, and especially
infants, were among the worst affected, adults were also often
afflicted, including future president Franklin D. Roosevelt, who in
1921 was stricken with polio at the age of 39 and was left partially
paralyzed. Roosevelt later transformed his estate in Warm Springs,
Georgia, into a recovery retreat for polio victims and was
instrumental in raising funds for polio-related research and the
treatment of polio patients.

Salk, born in New York City in 1914, first conducted research on
viruses in the 1930s when he was a medical student at New York
University, and during World War II helped develop flu vaccines. In
1947, he became head of a research laboratory at the University of
Pittsburgh and in 1948 was awarded a grant to study the polio virus
and develop a possible vaccine. By 1950, he had an early version of
his polio vaccine.

Salk's procedure, first attempted unsuccessfully by American Maurice
Brodie in the 1930s, was to kill several strains of the virus and then
inject the benign viruses into a healthy person's bloodstream. The
person's immune system would then create antibodies designed to resist
future exposure to poliomyelitis. Salk conducted the first human
trials on former polio patients and on himself and his family, and by
1953 was ready to announce his findings. This occurred on the CBS
national radio network on the evening of March 25 and two days later
in an article published in the Journal of the American Medical
Association. Dr. Salk became an immediate celebrity.

In 1954, clinical trials using the Salk vaccine and a placebo began on
nearly two million American schoolchildren. In April 1955, it was
announced that the vaccine was effective and safe, and a nationwide
inoculation campaign began. New polio cases dropped to under 6,000 in
1957, the first year after the vaccine was widely available. In 1962,
an oral vaccine developed by Polish-American researcher Albert Sabin
became available, greatly facilitating distribution of the polio
vaccine. Today, there are just a handful of polio cases in the United
States every year, and most of these are "imported" by Americans from
developing nations where polio is still a problem. Among other honors,
Jonas Salk was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977. He
died in La Jolla, California, in 1995.

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