Science Matters: Polio II

Program Information

Series: A Moment in Time
Duration: 00:04:10
Year Produced: 2009
Description:

The year 1916 marked the beginning of a polio epidemic in the United States that would not end until 1955. It did so as one of the major medical success stories of the 20th century.

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Transcript

Lead: The year 1916 marked the beginning of a polio epidemic in the United States that would not end until 1955. It did so as one of the major medical success stories of the 20th century.

Intro: A Moment In Time with Dan Roberts.

Content: Poliomyelitis, also known as infantile paralysis, is a viral infection of the intestinal tract that sometimes can attack the central nervous system and lead to severe muscular paralysis. After the 1916 outbreak, the United States averaged 21,000 paralytic cases per year. During the 1930-40s, both private and government research was accelerated to try to find a cure for this dreaded disease. The National Foundation of Infantile Paralysis, now the March of Dimes, was inaugurated by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938 for the purpose of raising money, one dime at a time, to fund polio research. Americans waited--with not a great deal of patience--for a breakthrough.

By the early 20th century scientists had recognized that polio was a viral disease and, fairly early, the focus of study shifted from cure to prevention, i.e., the development of a vaccine. In 1949 a laboratory discovery by three American virologists cleared the road for the development of that vaccine. John F. Enders, Thomas H. Weller and Frederick C. Robbins, later awarded a Nobel Prize, successfully grew the polio virus in a lab culture. Previously scientists went through the painstaking process of exposing live animals, then extracting the virus from the animal for examination. Now the virus could be reproduced quickly, examined, and manipulated.

On April 12, 1955, it was announced that after large-scale clinical trials physician researcher Jonas Salk had developed a polio vaccine made of killed poliovirus that, when administered by a shot, immunized the patient without infection. Six years later virologist Albert Sabin's oral vaccine, containing live but attenuated (or much weakened) poliovirus, was approved and eventually supplanted the Salk vaccine. Today there are very few natural cases of poliomyelitis in countries where the vaccine in administered, although the disease is still very much a health threat in underdeveloped parts of the world.

The producer of A Moment In Time is Steve Clark. At the University of Richmond, this is Dan Roberts.