After a year-long field trial, dozens of scientists and a throng of journalists gathered to find out whether Polio vaccine had been effective.
United States – Imagine the scene: After a year-long field trial, dozens of scientists and a throng of journalists gathered at a prestigious university to find out whether a polio vaccine for a global scourge had been effective. The anticipation was as thick as fog.
When a lead researcher finally declared the vaccine “safe, potent and effective” in the vast majority of patients, there was jubilation, inside the auditorium and around the world. The end of a serious worldwide infection was finally in sight.
When it happened on April 12, 1955, inside Rackham Auditorium at the University of Michigan, the lead researchers were Dr. Jonas Salk and Dr. Thomas Francis. Their discovery of a vaccine against poliomyelitis was the result of years of work culminating in an exhaustive double-blind study. It produced 1.8 million IBM punch cards that helped the doctors analyze 144 million data points from test children, age 18 and younger, in 217 areas of the United States, Canada and Finland.
The headline in that day’s London Evening Free Press screamed the result, in a type size usually reserved for declarations of war or peace: “Announce Polio Vaccine ‘Safe, Effective, Potent.’”
“Dr. Jonas Salk of Pittsburgh immediately declared that he is sure the vaccine is potentially almost 100 per cent effective and can bring complete triumph over polio and its lieutenants, terror and tragedy,” the Associated Press story said.
The following day, the Free Press’s editorial declared the vaccine “a brilliant success” that meant future generations would “no longer live in the shadow of fear.” And alongside other stories about the discovery was a photo of 24-year-old Mrs. Robert Noble of Halifax, a wheelchair user since her polio diagnosis two years earlier, who said she could now hope that her daughters, aged three and 18 months, might never have to face the same threat.
Over at CFPL-TV, the Free Press company’s broadcast arm, women’s commentator Mary Ashwell planned a news special for the following day, during which Dr. H.A. Collins, the city’s assistant medical officer of health, would administer the first vaccine to a London child.
Unlike COVID-19, polio affected mostly the young — children aged 14 and younger accounted for 70 per cent of cases. It had a fatality rate of between two and five per cent for children, 15 to 30 per cent for adults. Its most common legacy, however, was lifelong paralysis.
In Canada, the virus first presented itself in Hamilton in 1910, then quickly spread. The infection attacked in waves: 1937 was a particularly bad year, with more than 2,500 cases in Ontario alone; so was 1953, when there were 9,000 cases in Canada and about 500 deaths. Yearly peaks usually arrived between July and September. The most common means of infection were through contaminated water, food or saliva.
In 1955, Canadians had almost immediate access to the vaccine, because Connaught Medical Research Laboratories at the University of Toronto had prepared and supplied the virus culture fluid from which Salk’s trial vaccine was made.
At the federal level, health minister Paul Martin Sr., himself a victim of polio in his youth, guaranteed enough vaccine by July to inoculate one million Canadian children (Canada’s total population at the time was about 15 million).
In Ontario, which then comprised one-third of the country’s population, Premier Leslie Frost promised injections for every school child, free of charge. Each inoculation would require three injections. The first group to be vaccinated would be elementary school children in Grades 1-3. Between April 1955 and June 1957, approximately 1.8 million Canadian children and youth under the age of 18 were vaccinated, with local health units in charge. By the end of 1957, that number had risen to four million doses. But it wasn’t until 1994 that Canada was certified as polio-free.
As we anxiously await a vaccine for COVID-19, a look back at Canada’s experience with polio should teach us a few things.
We should remember that our societal bid to eradicate polio was decades long. Canadians, especially parents of young children, lived in fear of the scourge of polio-related paralysis and death for 45 years.
After the vaccine was discovered, it took several more years to achieve widespread inoculation.
Even now, there is no cure — only prevention and vigilance.
We need to realize that our modern preference for instant gratification has made us impatient in a monumental fight. After less than nine months of living with COVID-19, we’ve already grown pandemic weary. We let down our guard at times. We complain. We want life to return to “normal,” whatever that will be.
Instead, we need to adopt the kind of war footing — a determined, publicly minded, collective will to sacrifice, endure and win out — that served our forebears so well.
Finally, we need to remind our children and grandchildren, some unsettled by confusion and despair, that victories over such contagions do come. And when they do, they are glorious.
The article is originally published at LF press