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50th Anniversary of the Salk polio vaccine

© March of Dimes USA
In 1955, in Boulder City, Nevada, teacher, Mrs. Dorothy Johnson, with her class on the day of the first Salk polio inoculation.

By Rachel Bonham Carter

NEW YORK, 12 April 2005 – Fifty years to the day since Dr. Jonas Salk and his team of scientists at the University of Pittsburgh had their polio vaccine approved, the world is on the cusp of eliminating the virus for good.  At its peak, poliomeylitis paralyzed and killed up to half a million people a year.  In 2004, the World Health Organisation (WHO) reported 1263 cases worldwide.

Polio is spread through water or food contaminated with human waste. It is a highly contagious, incurable virus affecting the nervous system which can cause crippling paralysis or even death within hours of infection. 

Dr. Salk’s vaccine became available in 1955, not long after a polio epidemic had struck nearly 58,000 people in the United States. According to Heidi Larson, UNICEF’s Senior Communications Advisor for Immunization and Child Survival, the population was eager to try anything to rid themselves of the terror:

“The whole effort to address polio epidemic in the US was in the thick of the time when polio was around and people where afraid of it – children were told not to go into swimming pools.  It was very much around, so people were willing to take a vaccine of any sort.”

The results were staggering;  the Americas were certified polio-free by the WHO in 1994; the Western Pacific followed in 2000, and Europe in 2002. Although, the method of delivering the vaccine has changed from an injection to the oral polio vaccine (OPV) and the actual make-up of the vaccine has been altered, Salk is still credited with kick-starting the revolution that has brought the end of polio within reach.

The Global Polio Eradication Initiative, formed in 1988, is an international partnership dedicated to a polio-free world. They are behind a massive global effort to stop transmission of polio by the end of this year. The partnership plans for the world to be certified polio-free by 2008, 53 years after Salk’s vaccine was released.

Despite major successes in bringing polio under control, the virus still exists. To eradicate it, every child must be vaccinated, but there are still populations who  refuse the vaccine.  Larson describes this as “a real wake-up call.”  In Nigeria’s Kano state last year, vaccination programs were halted for several months due to local concerns over the safety of it. Residents were left vulnerable to the disease and the virus quickly spread as far as Botswana.

Larson believes that social concerns must be addressed before the vaccine will be fully accepted around the globe.

“I think there was some refusal and resistance to taking the vaccine because there was a perception that it was not a local need but an externally imposed effort… For communities who are not getting much in the way of health services, who have their own perceptions of what they need or don't need, we have to work much more at understanding the communities so that when we introduce these things for the health and well-being of their children, they also feel that strongly enough to sustain it.”

Working with communities is a fundamental part of UNICEF’s work with immunization programs.  In Kano, Nigeria, the polio vaccination is being distributed again, thanks to the support of religious and community leaders in the region.

“It shows,” says Larson, “the importance of listening to communities and getting their engagement and of making sure that reponses introduced from outside become locally owned and locally developed.”




8 April 2005: UNICEF’s Senior Communications Advisor for Immunization and Child Survival, Heidi Larson, discusses the challenges still faced in the fight against polio.

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