• Otávio Santiago

How U.S. schools proved Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine was safe

When the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized the use of Pfizer and Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccines last December—a year after the coronavirus was first identified in Wuhan, China—it was a dramatic piece of good news after one of the most disruptive years the country has ever experienced.

Now consider the thrill people felt in April 1955 when Dr. Jonas Salk’s new polio vaccine was officially declared to be “safe, effective, and potent.” That came more than 60 years after the first known polio outbreak in the U.S., which took place in rural Rutland County, Vermont in 1894. It killed 18—mostly children below the age of 12–and left 123 permanently paralyzed.

From there, polio became an enduring, mysterious scourge. In 1916, it hit New York City, killing 2,343 out of a total of 6,000 nationwide that year. In the 1940s and early 1950s, the number of incidents in the U.S. grew eightfold, reaching 37 per 100,000 population by 1952. The fact that children were most susceptible to the disease made it only more terrifying.

The Salk vaccine was approved only after going through the largest clinical trial in history. Rather than being a government project, this test was overseen and paid for by a nonprofit organization founded by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938: The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, better known as the March of Dimes. (Roosevelt himself had contracted polio at the unusually advanced age of 39.) More than 1.3 million children participated; some got either the vaccine, which required three shots over a five-week period, or a placebo, while others underwent observation for polio.

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