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Polio - The Amazing Dr. Jonas Salk

Updated on September 1, 2019
Pamela99 profile image

After 22 years as an RN, I now write about medical issues and new medical advances. Diet, exercise, treatment, and lifestyle are important.

Map of Afganistan and Pakistan


Polio Prevention - Then and Now

Dr. Jonas Salk, an American medical researcher announced on March 26, 1953, on the radio that he has successfully tested a vaccine to treat poliomyelitis. During 1952 the United States had an epidemic year for polio with 58,000 new cases, and 3000 of those children died from the disease.

I remember as a small child how parents were afraid to let their children swim due to the risk of contracting this virus.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently announced the polio virus has spread to several new countries, and it is “a public health emergency of international concern” that warrants aggressive measures to control the transmission of this virus.

Up until this time polio had been thought to be close to eradication. The only two diseases in the world that had truly been eradicated are smallpox and rinderpest, which is the viral cattle disease.

Dr. Jonas Salk


Areas of the World Affected

Pakistan has the largest number of domestic cases as the Taliban factions have forbidden vaccinations in tribal areas and health care workers have been attacked. In addition, the disease has spread to Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea.

The World Health Organization stated they were most concerned about "central Asia (from Pakistan to Afghanistan), in the Middle East (Syrian Arab Republic to Iraq) and in Central Africa (Cameroon to Equatorial Guinea)." They are urging all nations to carry out very vigorous immunization campaigns.

Polio had decreased by 99% since 1988 to 406 cases reported in 2013. This year 74 cases have already been officially reported. Previously, polio had been confined to Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan. WHO estimates that 1.5 million childhood deaths had been prevented by the systemic administration of Vitamin A, along with the polio immunization. Southeast Asia, including India, has been declared polio free due to their vigorous efforts to get children immunized. In the United States polio was eradicated in 1979.

Unfortunately, WHO believes that the polio virus is being spread by travelers to these various areas where un-immunized people live.

Iron Lungs in US

For victims that could not breathe
For victims that could not breathe | Source

What is Polio?

Polio is a very contagious disease that is caused by the poliovirus, which primarily affects children under five. One out of 200 patients will get irreversible paralysis and from 5 to 10 percent of those will die, as their breathing muscles become immobilized. The poliovirus invades the nervous system and is able to cause paralysis in a few hours.

This contagious virus lives in the intestines and the throat of infected people, so it can be easily spread through a sneeze, by having your hands on feces from a small child and then touching your mouth or face.

The disease can be spread to others immediately before symptoms occur and up to 1 to 2 weeks following the development of the disease. It can also live in contaminated food and water when people do not wash their hands.

The History of Polio in the U.S.

Life of Dr. Jonas Salk

Jonas Salk was born in 1914 in New York City. He began conducting research on viruses in the 1930s while he was a medical student at New York University, and during World War II he helped develop flu vaccines.

He led the research laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh; then, he was awarded a grant to study the polio-virus and develop a possible vaccine in 1948.

Polio had previously been known as infantile paralysis. Dr. Salk conducted his first human trials on former polio patients, on himself and his family. By 1953, he was ready to announce his findings.

Clinical trials using the Salk vaccine along with a placebo began in 1954 on nearly 2,000,000 American schoolchildren. In April 1955 and announcement was made that the vaccine was effective and safe, which began a huge nationwide an occupation campaign.

The impact of the vaccine on polio was phenomenal. In 1952 there were more than 57,000 cases in United States, according to the College of physicians of Philadelphia.

Within 10 years that number fell to less than 1000. Albert Sabin developed a live virus vaccine a few years later that was less expensive and much easier to use, but not considered any more effective.

Dr. Salk Continues Research

In 1963 Dr. Salk opened his own research organization, the Salk Center for Biological Studies. Dr. Salk was considered a miracle worker, and he endeared himself to the public because he refused to patent the vaccine. Salk would have been $7 billion richer if his vaccine had been patented. He never had any desire to profit personally from his discovery as his goal was to see the vaccine disseminated as quickly as possible.

He and several other scientists focused on developing cures for other diseases, such as multiple sclerosis and cancer. Dr. Salk was the center’s director until 1975, and he continued research and studied AIDS and HIV later in his career. Additionally he wrote several books including:

  • Men Unfolding (1972)
  • The Survival of the Wisest (1973), co-written with his son Jonathan
  • World Population and Human Values: A New Reality (1981)
  • Anatomy of Reality (1983)

Personal Life of Jonas Salk

Dr. Salk was married to Donna Lyndsay from 1939 to 1968, and they had three sons together. In 1970 he married Francoise Gilot, an artist, who had previously been romantically involved with Pablo Picasso. They had one child.

He received numerous awards for his work over his lifetime, including the Nobel Prize. Jonas Salk died on June 23, 1995, at 80 years of age of congestive heart failure. Dr. Salk obviously earned his place in medical history and will always be remembered as the man who found a cure for polio.

Polio Survivors – Dennis Ogbe

Famous People who Suffered from Polio

Some open of the famous people that were victims of polio include: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Dinah Shore, Donald Sutherland, Mia Farrow, Francis Ford Coppola, nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, Alan Alda, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, Lionel Barrymore and one of the world’s finest violinist Itzhak Perlman, who was permanently disabled at the age of four, yet still plays the violin while sitting down.

Most of these people were able to overcome their disabilities.

Summary of a Heartbreaking Reality

While Pakistan is setting up areas for polio vaccines in airports, the children in the rural areas are not being treated. This holds true for Afghanistan and Nigeria as well. The World Health Organization is working vigilantly to get vaccines to needed areas, but healthcare workers have been killed, so it is a very difficult task.

I think this would be heartbreaking for Dr. Jonas Salk, if he was still alive, to know his vaccine is 100 percent effective, yet children under five are still becoming paralyzed from this disease. The radical element in these countries is certainly a force to be reckoned with, and this difficult situation will not be resolved overnight.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2014 Pamela Oglesby


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