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History of Polio and the Polio Vaccine for Kids

Updated on March 30, 2017

In 1954, kids all around the US, Canada and Finland stood in lines inside their school gymnasiums or other large meeting areas. They could smell rubbing alcohol. They could hear kids crying. They were waiting to get a shot. They were a little nervous but they were also grateful.

They were going to be vaccinated against a dreadful virus called polio. Polio had generated so much fear and panic. Parents were frightened as each summer approached. Polio was at its worst in summer. And now it would finally be defeated. Thousands of kids suffered from polio every year. Some kids became paralyzed. They needed crutches and leg braces. Some needed wheelchairs. Some were paralyzed from the neck down. Some even died.

What Is Polio?

Polio is an infectious disease caused by a virus. In the past, the virus caused thousands of children to become paralyzed. Many people died. Children with paralyzed legs needed wheelchairs, braces or crutches to get around. Iron lungs were used to assist breathing for those with a paralyzed torso. Many parents refused to let their children swim in natural swimming holes due to fears they would pick up the virus from the water. The threat was worse in the summer. There is no cure for polio, so vaccinations are necessary to prevent the disease.

A boy receives a polio vaccination
A boy receives a polio vaccination

Vaccine Trials

Thanks to Dr. Jonas Salk and other researchers at the University of Pittsburgh, there was now a vaccine available. The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis had collected donations for years to fund research to find a cure for polio. Infantile Paralysis is another name for polio.

In 1954, 1.8 million children in the United States, Canada and Finland participated in polio vaccine trials. Trials are tests done to ensure that a vaccine in safe. In 1955, it was announced that trials of the polio vaccine were successful. Now the vaccine would be available to everyone.

Dr. Jonas Salk
Dr. Jonas Salk

How Vaccines Work

When a virus enters the body, antibodies are created to fight it off. Antibodies are like tiny soldiers. Unfortunately, when an unfamiliar virus gets into the body it takes time for enough antibodies to be created. The virus can cause a lot of problems and take over the body before enough soldiers are ready for the fight.

The polio vaccine contains a small amount of dead polio virus. Because the virus is dead it can’t do any harm. But when the body detects the virus, it creates the antibodies needed to prepare for an invasion. If the real virus does get into the body, there are plenty of antibodies ready to destroy it. This is called immunity.


Newspaper headlines announced the success of the Salk polio vaccine
Newspaper headlines announced the success of the Salk polio vaccine
People were very grateful to Dr. Salk
People were very grateful to Dr. Salk

Dr. Jonas Salk

Dr. Jonas Salk was born in New York in 1914. He was a researcher who studied viruses and the immune system. He created the first successful polio vaccine. Salk wasn't a strong child, so he never played sports. But he was a very dedicated student who always earned A's. He graduated from Townsend Harris High School, a school for gifted students. He later graduated from New York University.

In 1947, Salk went to work at the University of Pittsburgh. He was a professor of bacteriology. This is the study of bacteria that can cause diseases.

Salk and his team of researchers received a grant from the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis to find a vaccine for polio. A grant is money given to a group for a certain pupose. The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis was a charity that raised money for polio research. They gave that money to polio researchers like Dr. Salk.

Testing of Salk's vaccine first began in 1950. When it was found to be safe, the field trials were held in 1954. When it was still found to be safe, it became available to everyone. Dr. Salk was hailed as a hero for his work.

Jonas Salk and the Polio Vaccine

Some kids who contracted the polio virus had to wear leg braces
Some kids who contracted the polio virus had to wear leg braces

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    • carol7777 profile image

      carol stanley 4 years ago from Arizona

      An amazing man and an amazing discovery. Thanks for bringing this up with your hub to remind people of this..We tend to forget.

    • JoanCA profile image
      Author

      JoanCA 4 years ago

      carol7777,

      Definitely a lot of people have forgotten what it was like when these diseases were so deadly.

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