How thousands of first- and second-graders saved the world from a deadly disease

How thousands of first- and second-graders saved the world from a deadly disease

Although Jonas Salk has gone down in history for helping rid the world (almost) of polio, his revolutionary vaccine wouldn't have been possible without the world’s largest clinical trial – and the bravery of thousands of kids.

Exactly 67 years ago, in 1955, a group of scientists and reporters gathered at the University of Michigan and waited with bated breath for Dr. Thomas Francis Jr., director of the school’s Poliomyelitis Vaccine Evaluation Center, to approach the podium. The group had gathered to hear the news that seemingly everyone in the country had been anticipating for the past two years – whether the vaccine for poliomyelitis, developed by Francis’s former student Jonas Salk, was effective in preventing the disease.

Polio, at that point, had become a household name. As the highly contagious virus swept through the United States, cities closed their schools, movie theaters, swimming pools, and even churches to stop the spread. For most, polio presented as a mild illness, and was usually completely asymptomatic – but for an unlucky few, the virus took hold of the central nervous system and caused permanent paralysis of muscles in the legs, arms, and even people’s diaphragms, rendering the person unable to walk and breathe. It wasn’t uncommon to hear reports of people – mostly children – who fell sick with a flu-like virus and then, just days later, were relegated to spend the rest of their lives in an iron lung.

For two years, researchers had been testing a vaccine that would hopefully be able to stop the spread of the virus and prevent the 45,000 infections each year that were keeping the nation in a chokehold. At the podium, Francis greeted the crowd and then proceeded to change the course of human history: The vaccine, he reported, was “safe, effective, and potent.” Widespread vaccination could begin in just a few weeks. The nightmare was over.

The road to success

Jonas Salk, a medical researcher and virologist who developed the vaccine with his own research team, would rightfully go down in history as the man who eradicated polio. (Today, wild poliovirus circulates in just two countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan – with only 140 cases reported in 2020.) But many people today forget that the widespread vaccination campaign that effectively ended wild polio across the globe would have never been possible without the human clinical trials that preceded it.

As with the COVID-19 vaccine, skepticism and misinformation around the polio vaccine abounded. But even more pervasive than the skepticism was fear. The consequences of polio had arguably never been more visible.

The road to human clinical trials – and the resulting vaccine – was a long one. In 1938, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt launched the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis in order to raise funding for research and development of a polio vaccine. (Today, we know this organization as the March of Dimes.) A polio survivor himself, Roosevelt elevated awareness and prevention into the national spotlight, even more so than it had been previously. Raising funds for a safe and effective polio vaccine became a cornerstone of his presidency – and the funds raked in by his foundation went primarily to Salk to fund his research.

The Trials Begin

Salk’s vaccine, which included an inactivated (killed) polio virus, was promising – but now the researchers needed test subjects to make global vaccination a possibility. Because the aim of the vaccine was to prevent paralytic polio, researchers decided that they had to test the vaccine in the population that was most vulnerable to paralysis – young children. And, because the rate of paralysis was so low even among children, the team required many children to collect enough data. Francis, who led the trial to evaluate Salk’s vaccine, began the process of recruiting more than one million school-aged children between the ages of six and nine in 272 counties that had the highest incidence of the disease. The participants were nicknamed the “Polio Pioneers.”

Double-blind, placebo-based trials were considered the “gold standard” of epidemiological research back in Francis's day - and they remain the best approach we have today. These rigorous scientific studies are designed with two participant groups in mind. One group, called the test group, receives the experimental treatment (such as a vaccine); the other group, called the control, receives an inactive treatment known as a placebo. The researchers then compare the effects of the active treatment against the effects of the placebo, and every researcher is “blinded” as to which participants receive what treatment. That way, the results aren’t tainted by any possible biases.

But the study was controversial in that only some of the individual field trials at the county and state levels had a placebo group. Researchers described this as a “calculated risk,” meaning that while there were risks involved in giving the vaccine to a large number of children, the bigger risk was the potential paralysis or death that could come with being infected by polio. In all, just 200,000 children across the US received a placebo treatment, while an additional 725,000 children acted as observational controls – in other words, researchers monitored them for signs of infection, but did not give them any treatment.

As with the COVID-19 vaccine, skepticism and misinformation around the polio vaccine abounded. But even more pervasive than the skepticism was fear. President Roosevelt, who had made many public and televised appearances in a wheelchair, served as a perpetual reminder of the consequences of polio, as an infection at age 39 had rendered him permanently unable to walk. The consequences of polio had arguably never been more visible, and parents signed up their children in droves to participate in the study and offer them protection.

The Polio Pioneer Legacy

In a little less than a year, roughly half a million children received a dose of Salk’s polio vaccine. While plenty of children were hesitant to get the shot, many former participants still remember the fear surrounding the disease. One former participant, a Polio Pioneer named Debbie LaCrosse, writes of her experience: “There was no discussion, no listing of pros and cons. No amount of concern over possible side effects or other unknowns associated with a new vaccine could compare to the terrifying threat of polio.” For their participation, each kid received a certificate – and sometimes a pin – with the words “Polio Pioneer” emblazoned across the front.

When Francis announced the results of the trial on April 12, 1955, people did more than just breathe a sigh of relief – they openly celebrated, ringing church bells and flooding into the streets to embrace. Salk, who had become the face of the vaccine at that point, was instantly hailed as a national hero – and teachers around the country had their students to write him ‘thank you’ notes for his years of diligent work.

But while Salk went on to win national acclaim – even accepting the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his work on the polio vaccine in 1977 – his success was due in no small part to the children (and their parents) who took a risk in order to advance medical science. And that risk paid off: By the early 1960s, the yearly cases of polio in the United States had gone down to just 910. Where before the vaccine polio had caused around 15,000 cases of paralysis each year, only ten cases of paralysis were recorded in the entire country throughout the 1970s. And in 1979, the virus that once shuttered entire towns was declared officially eradicated in this country. Thanks to the efforts of these brave pioneers, the nation – along with the majority of the world – remains free of polio even today.

Sarah Watts

Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago.

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