Conquering the dreaded crippler, polio

Kurt Achenbach, 7, a first-grader at Baker School in 1954, bucks up his courage as he gets a shot from Dr. Frank Prather. Young Kurt was one of 1.8 million “polio pioneers” who volunteered to test the Salk vaccine.

On April 12, 1955, parents anxiously awaited the results of the largest vaccine field trials in history on the effectiveness of the new Salk polio vaccine. Dr. Jonas Salk in 1954 had presided over 1.8 million elementary school children, “polio pioneers” who had volunteered to test the vaccine.

Dr. Thomas Francis of the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan Polio Evaluation Center evaluated results of the huge field trial. Finally, in front of 500 scientists and medical authorites and a swarm of reporters, microphones and cameras, Francis pronounced, “The new Salk vaccine works, is safe, effective and potent.”

The long battle against the dreaded crippler of children entered the final stages.

It is almost impossible to exaggerate the terror posed by polio at the time. Parents lived in constant fear that their children would be stricken — perhaps killed or condemned by paralysis to pass their days inside iron-lung machines.

imageEleven-year-old Robert Blackburn of Clarkston, shown in 1953with grandmother Mrs. Alfred Dunckel and mother Dorothy Blackburn, gets breathing assistance from an iron lung at Children’s Hospital in Farmington.

Mothers feared heat waves that mysteriously accompanied polio epidemics. They cautioned their children and kept them home. No swimming pools or other fun summer activities for the kids: “Do you want to end up in an iron lung?”

Quarantine signs closed summer camps. Everyone knew someone who had polio: 60,000 new cases were reported in one merciless summer alone.

Though it would eventually be established that polio had been around since the second millennium B.C., it was not until the end of the 18th century that physicians made the connection between a long familiar cluster of vague symptoms — fever, headache, stiffness and sore throat. Infantile paraysis, also called polio, continued to draw scant medical attention until 1887, when 44 cases were reported by a pediatrician in Stockholm. The outbreak became the first of a worldwide series of increasingly severe epidemics. Strangely, the more developed nations seemed especially vulnerable. The higher standards of sanitation paradoxically promoted the virus. Cleanliness protected the children in industrial countries from gaining immunity from early exposure to polio’s less virulent strains.

The first United States outbreak in 1894 in Vermont claimed 132 victims. In 1916, 29,000 Americans contracted the disease nationwide and 6,000 died.

Polio never came close to rivaling such killers as smallpox or influenza, but its terrors were especially vivid, in part because there was nothing anyone could do to guard against it.

Author Kathryn Black in her book “In the Shadow of Polio: A Personal and Social History” writes, “Fear hung like heat in the summer. No one knew how you got it. Did you breathe it in, swallow it in contaminated milk, drink it down at a public fountain, or get it from flies on your picnic lunch?”

Most of the time the polio virus stopped at the digestive tract, causing temporary discomfort, and was often misdiagnosed as a bad cold. But in 3 or 4 percent of those exposed to the virus, it coursed into the blood, and into the central nervous system, destroying the cells that direct the muscles to move.

Tragically, it avoided the cells that sent pain messages to the brain, leaving polio victims to suffer excruciating pain as they lay motionless in their iron lungs.

From 1942 to 1955 polio claimed hundreds of thousands of victims of all ages, from the smallest infant to the oldest of the family. Many died shortly after onset, as the virus robbed them of their ability to breathe. Many others lived long lives with the help of respirators, wheelchairs and crutches.

Severe polio epidemics hit Americans in the 1940s and ’50s, particularly in the hot summer months.

imageVisitors to the 1956 Detroit Auto Show were provided with adhesive tabs to attach gift dimes to an automobile (for the March of Dimes). Two-year-old Stephen Schelling and Norma Ivey of Harper Woods examine the display.

Detroit averaged 2,500 cases annually. A Detroit News article warned parents, “Children should avoid summertime play that involves physical activity, chills, or contact with known polio victims.”

The disease’s connection with summer puzzled medical historians, who eventually concluded that warm weather gave people more contact with other people. The crowds, not the swimming pools, flies or picnic baskets, allowed the virus to spread.

Working at the University of Pittsburgh in the 1950s, Dr. Jonas Salk became a hero when he ignored scientific doubters and used a killed virus to develop the first polio vaccine.

Salk, along with his mentor, U-M’s Dr. Thomas Francis, and the March of Dimes announced to a thrilled and grateful world a triumph: The Salk polio vaccine worked. Within five years, polio was all but wiped out in the United States. Salk would later state, “What had the most profound effect was the freedom from fear.”

On that day in April 1955 Salk shared the stage with Francis in Rackham Auditorium. Their triumph was the culmination of the year long study of the vaccine, which was unprecedented in scope and magnitude. Using a double-blind method of statisical analysis, where neither patient nor administering physician knew if the inoculation was the Salk vaccine or a placebo, 444,000 children got the vaccine and 210,000 the control substance.

On staff at the U-M Polio Evaluation Center, a small army of statisticians, epidemiologists and support personnel under the direction of Francis analyzed the results of the field study. Although many parents feared the possible dangers of the vaccine, polio frightened them more.

Francis closely guarded the findings of the test up until the last moment. Premature disclosure might adversely affect the struggle for a cure. Even Salk did not know all of the details of the test results, although he felt confident of the effectiveness and safety of the vaccine. His used his own two sons as the first “polio pioneer” children to test the serum.

The date selected for the announcement, April 12,1955, marked the 10th anniversary of the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, perhaps the most famous polio victim. FDR had founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, also known as the March of Dimes.

imageDr. Thomas Francis Jr. , left, of the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan Polio Evaluation Center, evaluated the results of the huge field trial conducted by his colleague Dr. Jonas Salk, right.

In The Detroit News the following day a front page article described the chaos surrounding the news of the medical breakthrough.

“The press releases were in boxes on a hand truck. To avoid a crush, public relations men from the university began throwing the releases into the crowd. “But still, hands grabbed at the boxes. In the next few seconds pandemonium prevailed. Then there was a dash for the couple of dozen typewriters in the press room and for a battery of telephones.”

Some estimate that more than 1.6 million polio survivors live in this country, 43 years after the Salk vaccine virtually eradicated the disease. Professor and polio survivor Edmund Sass, with a ready wit, realized he is one of a dying breed. “We’re all kind of like Edsels. There won’t be any more like us, and no one will mourn that fact.”

Now many Americans have never even heard of polio, except for the vague memory of their childhood vaccine. The March of Dimes now fights against birth defects. Even those planning a monument to Franklin Roosevelt wanted to portray him out of his wheelchair, as if it were not part of his life.

Nevertheless, the cure for polio remains perhaps the most famous medical breakthrough in history, one that changed the world. It offers hope in the other fights against AIDS, heart disease, cancer, multiple sclerosis, that victories can be won.

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files from The Detroit News Library.)

By Pat Zacharias / The Detroit News