Duke professor takes look back at how the US dealt with the polio epidemic

Durham County News

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – It was the late 1940s. Parents isolated children, travel and commerce were sometimes restricted, and quarantines measures were taken as polio gripped the United States.

“With many cases together that mostly occurred in children, and these cases consisted of a brief illness that may be followed by paralysis that was often permanent,” said Dr. Sallie Permar, a professor of Pediatrics Microbiology and Immunology at Duke University.

Their muscles were too weak to breathe, so patients survived inside iron lungs that stretched through hallways, large rooms, and anywhere there was space. It would not be until the spring of 1955 that scientist Jonas Salk made a breakthrough with a vaccine.

“This was met with huge jubilation over the fact that there was going to be a vaccine, but what followed was a lot of issues in getting the vaccine to everyone who wanted and needed it,” Permar said.

There were shortages as millions of children started to be inoculated. Adults would have to wait for more to be produced. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration left the job to the pharmaceutical companies and charities, including what is now the March of Dimes. Help from the government was in short supply.

“Not everyone who wanted the vaccine was able to get it at first and there were limited supplies,” Permar said.

There was then a massive setback. A tainted batch of the Salk vaccine killed several patients. Soon after, a new vaccine emerged that was developed by Albert Sabin. It was safer and taken orally. Originally tested on children in the Societ Union, it helped eradicate the disease in America.

It was a Cold War success story.

There have been no polio cases that originated in the United States since 1979.

“It’s really a worldwide effort, but really a success for coming together of communities, governments, philanthropy, and scientists to bring that to a close,” Permar said.

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