Julie has taught high school Zoology, Biology, Physical Science and Chem Tech. She has a Bachelor of Science in Biology and a Master of Education.
The Polio Problem
Usually a sore throat, fever, stomachache, and nausea will go away after a few days of rest, but with poliomyelitis (or polio for short), these symptoms can turn into something far more serious. Polio is caused by the poliovirus, and it can lead to an array of medical problems.
While around 72% of the people who contract polio won't have any symptoms, some will have the flu-like symptoms mentioned earlier, whereas others will have spinal cord and brain involvement that can result in permanent paralysis and death. Polio can impact any age group; however, children are the most impacted and are often left with debilitating, crippling effects.
Polio is easily transmitted, and it crippled thousands during the 1940s and 1950s. In 1952, the worst year of the epidemic, there were 58,000 cases of polio that were reported in the United States. Out of that 58,000, 3,145 people died and 21,269 people were crippled. Fortunately, a vaccine developed by Jonas Salk, a scientist who studied viruses in the 20th century, reduced polio outbreaks. The United States has been polio free since 1979. Let's take a closer look at Jonas Salk and the race to develop a polio vaccine.
Jonas Salk and the Development of the Vaccine
Normally, when you think of scientists developing vaccinations and cures for diseases, you might imagine a sterile hospital and scientific trials. But Jonas Salk took a somewhat unorthodox approach. In the early 1950s, after testing the vaccine on monkeys, Salk sterilized some syringes by boiling them in water on his stove and injected himself, his wife and his three children with the polio vaccine. Of course Salk did work in a lab setting, and did perform vaccine trials (more on that later), but the path to the vaccine did literally go through his family.
Another unorthodox move by Salk was the way the vaccine was developed. Prior to this vaccine, most vaccines were developed from live viruses; yet Salk created the polio vaccine by growing the virus and then killing it with formaldehyde. The killed virus was injected into humans, and then the immune system developed antibodies. This prevented anyone from actually getting sick from the vaccine, while still providing people with immunity, or protection, from polio.
Albert Sabin, another scientist, believed Salk's approach to the polio vaccine was flawed. He believed lasting protection from polio could only be obtained by using a live virus in the vaccination. In the race to develop the vaccine, mistakes were made. For example, in 1955 several children died due to a bad batch of vaccinations.
Eventually Sabin developed a vaccine with live polio, and this vaccine replaced Salk's from 1963 to 1999. Since Sabin's vaccine is live, it can (in some instances) cause polio, so today, the United States has returned to utilizing Salk's killed vaccine.
Let's learn a little more about the early life of Salk and how he came to be one of the most influential scientists of the 20th century.
Salk: Road to the Vaccine
Jonas Salk was born in New York in 1941. While his parents did not have much money, they emphasized the importance of education. Salk graduated from the College of New York and in 1939 received his medical degree from New York University. He began studying viruses during his internship at the University of Michigan.
Later, in 1947, Salk worked at the University of Pittsburgh, where he studied polio and became the head of the Virus Research Lab. Salk learned that the 125 strains of polio could be divided into three different categories. As he worked to make a vaccine, he realized that whatever he developed would need to protect the body from all of the different strains of polio.
One of the challenges Salk faced was growing enough of the poliovirus to experiment with. Fortunately for Salk, researchers at Harvard found a way to grow a lot of poliovirus on body tissues. This helped with his research, and in 1952 he developed a vaccine, which he tested on monkeys and children who had survived and recovered from polio. This trial expanded to those who did not have polio (including himself, his wife and his children).
By 1954, many school children were being vaccinated, and it was found the majority of these children were protected from the poliovirus. This group of children, aged six to nine, were nicknamed the Polio Pioneers. By 1955, 4 million people had been vaccinated with Salk's polio vaccine, and by 1959, 90 countries were using the vaccine.
The Impact of Jonas Salk
In 1952 there were approximately 58,000 cases of polio in the United States. Ten years later, after the vaccine, there was fewer than 1,000. Obviously Salk is best known for his contribution to the polio vaccine; however, he also had other contributions to science as well.
In 1963, Salk founded the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, which works to find cures to several diseases, such as diabetes, Alzheimer's and cancer. In the late 1970s, Salk suggested that the polio vaccine be combined with other vaccines, like diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis, which results in fewer shots. Today, for example, a child may receive a Pediatrix shot that combines polio, hepatitis B and Diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis.
In the late 1980s and 1990s, Salk worked to create a vaccination for HIV. He died in 1995 at the age of 80, and in his lifetime wrote over 100 scientific publications and two books.
Today we may take vaccinations for granted, but the fear of contracting polio was a real and major concern in the early to mid-20th century. The work of scientists like Jonas Salk, who created a polio vaccine, has virtually eliminated polio in the United States. Polio is caused by the poliovirus and may cause flu-like symptoms, long-lasting crippling effects, and even death.
Salk developed a vaccine from a killed version of the poliovirus, and the trials that ensued showed that the vaccine was extremely effective. While the race to develop a vaccine resulted in the deaths of some individuals (due to a bad batch of vaccine), Salk's name will forever be linked to eradicating polio.
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