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The Birth of Polio Eradication: The Salk Vaccine Turns 57

April 12, 2012

On April 12, 1955, scientists and reporters gathered in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for a momentous event.  Millions of Americans huddled around radios and televisions that day to learn whether the world’s first polio vaccine, developed by Dr. Jonas Salk at the University of Pittsburgh, could prevent a devastating disease that killed and paralyzed thousands upon thousands of people, mainly children.

It’s hard to overstate the terror of polio back then.  It would arrive each summer, like clockwork, leaving behind vivid reminders for all to see: wheelchairs, crutches, leg braces, iron lungs, deformed limbs.  When Dr. Salk’s injectable vaccine was declared “safe, effective, and potent” that remarkable day in Ann Arbor, a nation celebrated.  In churches, department stores, and coffee shops people wept openly with relief.  President Eisenhower invited Dr. Salk to the White House where, in a trembling voice, he thanked the young researcher for saving children everywhere. 

Asked whether he would patent his vaccine, Salk said no; it belonged to the world.  “Could you patent the sun?” he replied.     

A few years later, Dr. Albert Sabin of the University of Cincinnati developed the oral polio vaccine, or OPV.  Its low cost and ease of use—both critical innovations—allowed us to envision a world where all children, rich and poor, were protected against polio.  Since the World Health Organization launched its global initiative to eradicate the disease in 1988, OPV has reached billions of children worldwide, driving down polio cases by 99%.

This January, India—once thought to be the most difficult place to eradicate polio—celebrated an entire year without a case of wild poliovirus.  To reach this milestone, volunteers and frontline health workers toiled relentlessly to deliver OPV to millions of children, even in the most remote areas.

The Shot Felt 'Round The World is a documentary using first-hand interviews with world- renowned experts to tell the remarkable story of Dr. Jonas Salk and his research team, and of a nation that quite literally rolled up its collective sleeves to conquer the most-feared disease of the 20th century.

Now, with an eye on the endgame, scientists and researchers are developing even better vaccines.  A new, more potent oral version targeting two strains of the virus helped turn the tide in India and is making inroads in Pakistan, Nigeria and Afghanistan.  Scientists are also advancing a lower-cost and easier-to-use version of Dr. Salk’s vaccine for deployment in developing countries. 

The fight to end polio will not be easy, but it surely can be done.  We now face what the World Health Organization has called “the best—and perhaps last—chance to stop polio forever.”  We must seize this historic opportunity, fulfilling the promise we made to our children—to all children-- fifty-seven years ago today.

To learn more about how you can do your part to support the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, click here.

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