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The Salk Vaccine


Polio has plagued mankind through much of known history. An Egyptian carving from 1400 BCE depicts a man with a withered leg. Some scientists believe this is an early portrayal of a polio victim. Polio was a relatively uncommon disease through the 1800s. A theory proposes that before then, children were exposed to low levels of polio through contaminated water, developing resistance to the disease, but that went away with improved sanitary conditions.

The first polio epidemic in the United States occurred in 1894, and it became a major health concern by the1950s. It was one of the most feared diseases in industrialized countries, paralyzing hundreds of thousands of children every year. Polio tended to hit in the summer, sweeping through towns. Many victims recovered fully, but a large number suffered permanent paralysis and even death. Cases surged in 1952, the year Jonas Salk began testing his vaccine. The following year, Salk gave his vaccine to his family to demonstrate its safety. A widespread trial of the vaccine began in April of 1954.

On this date that year, five clinics in Fargo inoculated 1,643 children. Two doctors administered the shots at each clinic. They were assisted by nurses and volunteers. The number of children inoculated was only 68% of the number expected. This was possibly because school was out for the summer and many families were out of town.

There were some unexpected problems in the mass manufacture of the medicine. Surgeon General Leonard A. Scheele said the rush to manufacture enough vaccine threatened the its safety, but he expressed confidence that it would prove successful in preventing and controlling the disease. He went on to say the lessons learned in fighting polio could be extended to other diseases.

Polio is still a problem in underdeveloped countries. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative began in 1988. At that time, it was estimated that polio paralyzed 1,000 children every day. Political instability and armed conflict have made it difficult to tackle the remaining threat presented by the disease.

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher


Polio Global Eradication Initiative.
Accessed May 7, 2015.

Fargo Forum and Daily Republican. “1,643 Get First Salk Inoculations Here.” 10 June, 1954.

The History of Vaccines. "http://www.historyofvaccines.org/content/timelines/polio" http://www.historyofvaccines.org/content/timelines/polio Accessed June 10, 1954.