Infectious Diseases

The History of Polio Vaccine Development

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Prior to the creation of a reliable polio vaccine, poliomyelitis was a devastating disease. There is no cure for the crippling disease once it is contracted and it can be fatal. Today, vaccines are given to children to stop it from spreading. After the spreading is stopped, it can hopefully be eradicated entirely. The polio vaccine has a long and interesting history of development leading up to the modern vaccine.


Two separate teams of scientists and medical professionals were working on a polio vaccine in 1935. One group was lead by Dr. Maurice Brody at New York University. He created a polio vaccine from a dead poliovirus. He tested it on chimpanzees, himself and then on a group of 11,000 children, making up a control group and a test group. The second team worked at Temple University in Philadelphia. Dr. John Kolmer developed an attenuated vaccine and tested it on around 10,000 children. The results of both groups ended in disaster with several deaths, numerous paralyzations and even more made sick or having allergic reactions to the vaccines.


Three years after the two failed vaccines, the March of Dimes was created. It raised ten of millions of dollars, most of which went toward funding to find a viable vaccine.


Up until 1941, polio was believed to only be a nervous system virus and that it was inhaled through the air. It was later discovered that it was very rarely present in nasal tissue and that it could also be found in the digestive system. It enters the nervous system from the digestive system. When this was discovered it gave hope to vaccine developers that it could be fought in the body before reaching the nervous system.


In 1948, Dr. Hilary Koprowski of the Lederle Laboratories created a vaccine based on the new knowledge of polio's interaction with the digestive system. It was an attenuated Type II vaccine, which he tested on chimpanzees. He and his assistant then drank the concoction themselves and nothing bad happened to either of them. 


Not until two years later did Dr. Koprowski test his vaccine on children. He chose children with epilepsy and mentally disabled children from a state facility in New York. All twenty children developed antibodies and none became ill. This generated a great deal of controversy after the first two miserably failed tests. There was also some question about using institutionalized children, although it was a common practice for other medical research.


In order to create polio vaccines in large quantities to counteract the extremely rapid spread of the disease, Dr. Jonas Salk of the University of Pittsburg began cultivating polio in monkey kidney tissue. 


Salk began testing on humans the following year. His vaccine was made from the killed virus. He again tested on mentally disabled children that were institutionalized. He created three vaccines covering all three types of polio and not just Type II like Koprowski. The subjects all developed antibodies for the respective straight of polio that they were vaccinated against. 


Salk soon revealed that his vaccine did not offer long-term protection against polio, but he remained a public figure and was seen as the best hope to create a vaccine. In the same year, he tested his vaccine on himself and his family. 


A large-scale trial of Salk's vaccine with 1.3 million children began in 1954, including a control group. It was a randomized and double-blind study. 


It took a year to analyze the results of the study and it was announced as a success. Very shortly though there was an unfortunate backlash known as the Cutter Incident, in which all of the children vaccinated with the vaccine made by Cutter Laboratories developed paralytic polio. This caused the vaccine to be suspended while all six of the laboratories were investigated. The incident resulted from the manufacturer not following Salk's instructions and the program resumed. 

By 1994, the Americas were declared completely polio-free. In 2002, polio was eradicated from Europe. Vaccination efforts continue in developing countries today. In 2011, there were only 647 reported cases of polio. It is only considered to be endemic in four countries - Afghanistan, India, Nigeria and Pakistan. 

More about this author: Retha Boswell

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