The Polio Pioneers: Courage, Hope & Humanity

◼︎PANDEMIC

BREAKING NEWS: As I post this, Pfizer has reported this morning that it’s ready to seek Emergency Use Authorization from the FDA for children ages 5-11.

Last week the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services posted the picture featured above on its Facebook page with this text:

In 1954, polio was a terrifying reality. The vaccine began as a large clinical trial of 1.3 million kids around the country. They called themselves Polio Pioneers, the first to try a new vaccine in the hopes of ending a grave threat.

Nine months after the trial ended, the vaccine was declared safe and effective. In 1955, mass inoculation against polio began. 25 years later, domestic polio transmission had all but vanished.

Polio is now a mandated vaccination in all 50 states. The kids you see pictured made this a reality for us all.

Several friends and I shared this to our Facebook pages, but shortly after the original post was deleted for some reason by Nebraska’s DHHS. This caused it to vanish from all our pages. I feel the message in that post was so important I’ve decided to share the story of the Polio Pioneers here.


Iron Lungs

Perhaps the major health threat in the mid-twentieth century, rivaling COVID today, was polio or poliomyelitis. Like COVID, polio is caused by a virus — aptly named the poliovirus — and the majority of those infected have only minor flu-like symptoms lasting 2-5 days or none at all. Children under age 5 are most at risk. Also like COVID, for the comparative few that suffer serious illness the effects can be devastating. These include Meningitis infecting the spinal cord and/or brain, or paralysis potentially leading to permanent disability or death. President Franklin Roosevelt’s paralysis was caused by polio. The brother of a former companion of mine suffered polio as a child and required an iron lung to breathe. He eventually died at an early age due to complications of his polio.

Polio has been around for thousands of years, possibly evidenced by an Egyptian carving from around 1400 BC. It reached epidemic proportions in the early 1900s. It peaked in the United States in 1952 at 36 cases per 100,000 and a death rate of 2 per 100,000. With a national population of 158 million, that comes to about new 58,000 cases reported and over 3,000 deaths just in 1952.

Polio has now been largely eradicated in the U.S. and most of the world. It still continues to spread at epidemic levels in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria.

So how has polio been conquered?

By vaccine! — just as vaccines are used to fight the flu, diphtheria, hepatitis A & B, measles, HPV, meningitis, mumps, whooping cough, rubella, tetanus, tuberculosis, shingles, chickenpox, smallpox, tuberculosis, rabies, cholera, anthrax, yellow fever, and more. And now COVID too.

Dr. Jonas Salk & the Polio Pioneers

Dr. Jonas Salk of New York City began studying flu viruses in 1941 in a fellowship at the University of Michigan. In 1947 he moved on the University of Pittsburgh and began studying the Polio virus — or as he would determine, three separate viruses.

At the time, the prevailing view in medical research held that live viruses were required for vaccines. Salk took the unorthodox position that viruses killed with formaldehyde could be used instead and would be safer as they wouldn’t reproduce. Salk believed the body wouldn’t know the difference between a live virus and dead virus, and would build antibodies regardless to fight the intruder. Salk tested the virus on himself, his wife and three sons.

Source: historyofvaccines.org

On March 26, 1953, Salk went on national radio to announce he had tested the vaccine successfully and that clinical trials would begin. In 1954, 1.3 million children in the 1st, 2nd and 3rd grades participated in clinical trials in which some received the vaccine and others received a placebo. This is called a “blind study” so only the researchers would know who was receiving the vaccine and the two groups could be compared to determine any ill effects.

The over one million children who participated in the clinical trials were members of a unique and proud club called the Polio Pioneers. They were each awarded pins and cards certifying their contribution to this critical life-saving effort. It was an effort that could be a little scary, both because of the uncertainty and the needles. What elementary school child likes getting shots? Former Polio Pioneers have shared their stories online. To quote a few:

I was a polio pioneer in 1954 and have the card which my mother kept in my school scrapbook. I remember that I didn’t like getting shots, but was brave and didn’t flinch! Also I was very glad to find out that we got the real thing, not the placebo, because that meant that I was already vaccinated and didn’t need more shots. My mother reinforced the idea that we should be very proud to be Polio Pioneers, but it was a little bit scary to me that we were being guinea pigs, actually injecting a virus into us, even though it was killed. – Juliana

I was in second grade at PS #3 in Yonkers when they gave out the polio vaccine as a trial. The gymnasium was set up like a hospital with screens, nurses, and the smell of alcohol permeating the room. Some kids never had a shot before. I had, so I wasn’t too scared. The nurse held your head and turned it away from looking at the needle. I received the real vaccine, my cousin had the water placebo. I still have my button and card. – Jane

I took part in the Salk vaccine trial in Naperville, IL. I don’t remember the “Polio Pioneer” title or getting a card or pin, but I remember we lined up in the school gym to get the injections, and I knew that it was a study to see whether the vaccine would work. I think most of us, and most parents, were happy (plus scared, at least I was) to be part of it — polio was so frightening, and we felt we were part of something important. I think I turned out to have gotten the placebo, but not sure after all this time. – Mary

I was a polio pioneer in a parochial school in North Arlington New Jersey. I still have the pin and have vivid memories about the experience. Now that I have worked in medical research ethics for a number of years I look back on the design of the study and the “consent form” that our parents signed and know that it could never happen now. It gave them the “opportunity” to have their child participate. I don’t recall any child in my class who did not participate. Our parents so feared the disease that they were happy to volunteer their children. Years later I met a woman who contracted polio and I am grateful to my parents. – Anita

I was a Polio Pioneer at David W. Harlan School in Wilmington, DE. I was in 2nd grade and wore a new (dark green print) dress that day because we were going to be on the local news. I was unprepared for the blood tests that accompanied the shots for a random group and unfortunately, I was chosen – possibly the root of a life long needle phobia! Btw, there is a Polio Pioneer in Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum. – Jane

I was a Polio Pioneer in Roosevelt Elementary School in Ossining, NY. I don’t remember the card, but the pin was a cherished memory of which I was very proud. I retell the story often to my grandchildren, who live in a better world because of Polio Pioneers. – Zvi

Shopkeeper expresses gratitude.

I especially like the last comment person’s account. Zvi wrote “I retell the story often to my grandchildren, who live in a better world because of Polio Pioneers.” Precisely!

The trials were successful and general administration of the Salk vaccine began. As the chart above illustrates, polio infections in the U.S. dropped virtually to zero by the early 1960s. News reels at the time celebrated the accomplishment.

The Cutter Laboratories Tragedy

There’s no question that Salk’s vaccine was a monumental advance for the country, for the world and indeed for humanity. That doesn’t mean that all went well along the way. It didn’t. In particular there was a manufacturing error in 1955 by Cutter Laboratories in California resulted in 40,000 children contracting polio that killed 10 and left 200 others with various degrees of paralysis. The tragedy caused a temporary halt to mass vaccination and Salk’s reputation took a considerable hit though he was exonerated of any guilt.

In the investigation that followed it was determined that Cutter Laboratories lacked the experience necessary for safe manufacture of the vaccine and government inspectors had failed to identify the problem beforehand. This led to major reforms in federal regulation of vaccine manufacture.

Vaccination is a Social Responsibility

I see a striking difference in the overall public response in 1954 to the polio crisis versus COVID today. As Anita, one of the Polio Pioneers quoted above said, “Our parents so feared the disease that they were happy to volunteer their children. Years later I met a woman who contracted polio and I am grateful to my parents.”

“They were happy to volunteer their children.” Does that sound like reckless and irresponsible parenting? It might, but the alternative was to subject thousands and thousands of children to crippling paralysis and death. Prudent precaution is always warranted in life, but that doesn’t mean life can be made risk free. Salk’s clinical trials utilized the medical standards of that day — and then people trusted science. They made a calculated decision that the limited immediate risk was worth it for the greater long-term public good.

I have reached the conclusion that continued vaccine hesitancy is anti-social. The people refusing have become a public health menace. And if they also refuse masks and distancing as well, as more than a few are doing, their conduct is unconscionable by any measure.

Hospitals are jammed with COVID patients 97% of whom are unvaccinated — to the point some now have to turn away maternity patients, heart patients, cancer patients and others. The unvaccinated are endangering thousands of strangers by swamping these hospitals when it could have been avoided. They’re putting unvaccinated children at risk of exposure, and they’re hurting themselves! Virtually everyone dying from COVID is today is unvaccinated.

What is holding people back? The Pfizer vaccine now has full FDA approval. Over 386 million vaccine doses have been administered in the United States with 7,653 dying as a result. No death is insignificant or acceptable, but that’s 0.002%. People die while driving out doing errands. The 386 million doses is a sample thousands of times bigger than any clinical trial will ever be. By any reasonable measure, the COVID vaccine is safe — certainly safer than COVID itself which has now killed 1 out of every 500 in the U.S.

There is simply no rational, defensible argument left for not getting vaccinated — at least with Pfizer.

Those 1.3 million Polio Pioneers showed us the way. They had courage and they stood up for the good of humanity — which includes them because they ultimately benefited as well. Eventually they all got the vaccine. And now today, children don’t fear polio. But they do have to fear COVID unless everyone finally rolls up their sleeves for the children, for themselves and for all humanity.


Title image is a March of Dimes photo.


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