Although vaccines had been around for a number of years when Jonas Salk was doing his work, many of the diseases that we get vaccinations for today were considered untreatable at best and many of them were fatal. Amongst the worst diseases of the time was polio, which could cripple a child like nothing else ever could. Sending kids into iron lungs or wheelchairs if it didn’t kill them outright, polio was a scourge that needed to be stopped.
That’s where Dr. Jonas Salk stepped in. He believed that a virus could be deactivated if the human body could develop antibodies against it. He used formaldehyde to kill the virus, but leave it intact enough so that an immune response could be developed. After testing on animals and his team, the research went out in 1954 on a national level to determine if it was safe and effective.
Before the vaccine, there were more than 45,000 polio cases in the United States. In just 7 years after the vaccine was declared safe in 1955, there were just 910 reported cases of the disease. Salk never attempted to patent the vaccine.
Salk Was Also Involved in AIDS Research
Another nasty virus was beginning to make its way through the human population near the end of Salk’s life: AIDS. He joined the fight with his institute, attempting to develop a vaccine therapy based on the information that was known at the time. The project was discontinued in 2007, 12 years after Salk passed away, without an ability to cure the disease. His research, however, developed many of the advances that have helped to treat people with this disease.
After Salk’s death, the March of Dimes created an annual cash prize of a quarter million dollars to those who contribute work to the field of biology in his name. World Polio Day has been established to honor his accomplishments as well and a number of vaccine research techniques have been developed since based on Salk’s models. Not bad for a guy who joined in a desperate attempt to solve the deadly riddle of polio.
The Vaccine Wasn’t Without Tragedy
One of the laboratories that were authorized to produce the vaccine, Cutter Laboratories, ended up creating a lot of vaccines that had live virus in with the injection. It caused several thousand children to get sick from the exposure, caused 56 incidents of paralysis, and 5 deaths from the production error.
Dr. Albert Sabin was also a researcher concerned with the development of a polio vaccine and he developed a live virus option. It was administered orally and Sabin claimed it was more effective than Salk’s vaccine. This created some confusion in the general population since both were available until 1998. At that point, the Sabin vaccine was declared ineffective and Salk’s vaccine, 40 years later, was still the exclusive method for polio elimination.
Thanks to Jonas Salk, the world has the ability to protect itself against a very dangerous virus. Polio does not bring the fear that it once did. For that, parents everywhere, every day are eternally grateful.