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When a New Polio Vaccine Faced Shortages and Setbacks

August 4, 2020 in History

By Dave Roos

The 1955 announcement of a new vaccine was met by jubilation. But then the problems began.

On April 12, 1955, every American newspaper and TV set jubilantly announced that Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine was a success. Just three years earlier, during the worst polio outbreak in U.S. history, 57,000 people were infected, 21,000 were paralyzed and 3,145 died, most of them children. Pools and movie theaters were shuttered, and panicked parents kept their kids at home, haunted by black-and-white images of toddlers in leg braces and rows of infants sealed in iron lungs.

Nationwide, news of the Salk vaccine was greeted with tears of joy and relief. Even the usually stoic President ran a story on May 8, 1955 describing how the original “wave of exuberance” over the vaccine was being replaced in less than a month with “confusion, conflict, and doubt.”

READ MORE: How a New Vaccine Was Developed in Record Time in the 1960s

Salk Vaccine Replaced by Sabin’s Live-Virus Formula

Once the source of the polio infections was discovered, vaccinations were allowed to continue, but the Cutter incident stained the integrity of the Salk vaccine and opened the door for a competing polio cure developed by Salk’s scientific rival, Albert Sabin, director of Cincinnati’s Children’s Hospital.

Unlike Salk’s killed virus, Sabin’s vaccine was made from a live “attenuated” virus, meaning a weakened virus that’s strong enough to produce antibodies, but too weak to cause an active infection. Also, the Sabin vaccine was taken orally in one dose as opposed to receiving multiple injections of the Salk vaccine. The oral vaccination route had distinct advantages, explains Gupta from the March of Dimes.

“Al Sabin said, ‘The way this virus infects is through the GI tract and the way we have to fight this is through the GI tract,’” says Gupta. “He was working from the inside out. Also, a live attenuated virus would actually shed through fecal contamination and provide herd immunity.”

A Cold War Vaccine Race

Dr. Albert Sabin holding a vial containing a new oral polio vaccine he developed.

It was the Soviet Union, America’s Cold War enemy, that was the first to test the Sabin vaccine. Sabin was born in Poland, then part of the Soviet Union, and accepted the communist nation’s invitation in 1959 to conduct a massive trial of his oral vaccine on 10 million Soviet children. When the trial was a success, the Soviets …read more


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