Polio: 60 years after Unveiling the Salk Vaccine

By Bill Fine

It began in 1954 as children from Arsenal Elementary School in Pittsburg received the first polio vaccine developed by Dr. Jonas Salk. This was the beginning of a test that would involve nearly 2 million children in 44 states. The test would show the vaccine was successful and would greatly reduce the number of polio victims around the world.

On April 12, 1955, it was announced that Jonas Salk, using March of Dimes donations from millions of people, had developed a vaccine to prevent polio. In a press conference at the University of Michigan, Thomas Francis Jr., MD, (a scientist with extensive experience with influenza vaccines) and colleagues announced the results of the Salk poliovirus vaccine trial. The vaccine, they said, was 80 to 90 percent effective against paralytic polio. The U.S. government licensed Salk’s vaccine later that same day. The press conference and licensure paved the way for widespread distribution and use of the vaccine.

Here in Maryland, Dr. John Sever, a member of the Rotary Club of Potomac, is credited with helping start Rotary International’s effort to eradicate polio. At the time, Dr. Sever, a pediatrician and researcher, was the head of the National Institute of Neurological and Communicative Diseases and Stroke at the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Sever persuaded Rotary to adopt the goal of a polio-free world. The first Rotary project began in 1979 by bringing polio vaccine to children in the Philippines.

In 1985 when Rotary took on Polio eradication as its flagship initiative, there were more than 350,000 cases in 125 countries. Rotary is now the main volunteer arm of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative and continues to be the catalyst in that effort. In addition to advocacy and fundraising, many Rotary members join health workers in National Immunization Days around the world to save children from this dread disease. It was not until 1994 that The Americas were declared polio–free, a goal reached in Europe by 2002.

In 2007, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave a $100 million grant to Rotary International to combat polio. Rotary International promised to match the grant over a three-year period, for a total of $200 million to be used in the global eradication campaign. That has been expanded upon many times since then. Rotarians alone have raised over $1.3 billion dollars in this fight since 1985.

Where are we now? Rotary and its partners are making continuous progress along a multi-year plan to stop the transmission of this dread disease. Last year marked a great achievement in public health when India was certified as polio-free. This means there were no new cases in India for three consecutive years. The task taken on by Rotarians in India was immense, immunizing millions of children multiple times over in the past few years. Many felt it could never be done, but not the Rotarians. Their continued efforts made it happen and it is those efforts that are the hope for final eradication of this virus. The Southeast Asia was subsequently declared polio-free, leaving three endemic countries:  Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Africa has not seen a new polio case since this past August. There have been no new cases reported in northern Nigeria in 2015. The last case of type 3 polio virus was in November 2012, strongly indicating we may have eliminated all but one strain of the wild polio virus. Globally there were 356 reported cases in 2014, down from 416 in 2013.

The fight continues in Afghanistan and Pakistan where government and religious leaders need to remove perception barriers and encourage their populations to immunize their children.

The World Health Organization has urged 10 countries including three that have exported the virus in 2014, to ensure all travelers in and out of their borders are vaccinated against polio.  This effort appears to have contained the “travel spread.”

Why is it important to completely eradicate this disease? First and foremost we owe it to the children of the world to eliminate it. Closer to home we need to understand that polio is a wild virus just as Ebola is a wild virus. It is one international plane flight away from returning. There could be a problem with children whose parents have stopped vaccinating for one reason or another, as we have seen with the recent measles outbreak. The immunization of all children of the world will set the framework in place for conquering the next world public health challenge.

The generous challenge from the Gates Foundation continues today as they have promised to match every $1 raised by Rotary with $2 from their foundation up to $35 million a year for the next five years. You too can join in this fight to End Polio Now. Go to www.endpolio.org for more information and join us.  All are welcome.

Bill is the Rotary district governor for central Maryland and Washington, D.C., and can be reached at [email protected]

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