April 12, 1955, 60 years ago today, a much celebrated medical breakthrough was announced. Before this breakthrough, those suffering from the disease it prevents could be left with partial paralysis, atrophied limbs, confinement to braces, wheelchairs, or iron lungs. That is a description of survivors, of course. Not everyone lived through polio. It was a disease that primarily affected children, though its most infamous patient was the longest-serving president in U.S. history. It most frequently struck in the warmer months, and as such, summer fevers always instilled a sense of dread in parents of small children. Was it a case of sniffles or the start of polio? Would their child recover, be left paralyzed, or die? If the first child recovered, would he spread it to his siblings? Would they recover? Terrifying.
Patients in "iron lungs"
(Photos: Polio Canada [right], University of Pennsylvania [left])
The medical intervention was the first successful polio vaccine, developed by Dr. Jonas Salk. While the story of polio immunizations has something for everyone (really! There is competition, political scandal, jealousy, pettiness...a veritable soap opera), the aspect that is worth celebrating on this day is its inarguable success. This photo speaks volumes about how this breakthrough was received by families with small children:
Parents and children line up to receive Dr. Salk's vaccine and
ensure their protection from polio
That line stretched for blocks. At this stage of life and career I do not often have realizations about diseases that gut-punch me. Somehow, though, I never thought about the fact that in 1955 my own grandparents would have been standing in those lines, toting my mother and father, aunts and uncles. If you are in proximity to my age (35), that should give you pause. But for Jonas Salk, perhaps you would not be here. In our current global situation which paradoxically contains both voluntary vaccine exempters and outbreaks of polio from infrastructure-related vaccine lapses (most recently noted in Syria, Somalia, and South Sudan), we would do well to remember and celebrate April 12.