60 years later, recalling the world-altering discovery of the polio vaccine

Posted at 10:26 PM, Apr 13, 2015
and last updated 2015-04-14 07:38:36-04

Sixty years ago this coming Sunday, the Salk polio vaccine was declared "safe, effective and potent," an announcement cheered with the fervor of a national holiday. At the time, the dreaded disease was infecting more than 50,000 children in the United States a year, killing many and leaving some so paralyzed they could breathe only with the help of an iron lung.

And 60 years later, the triumphs of this vaccine — the U.S. had its last case of indigenous polio in 1979 — are being used as a teaching tool for health providers and consumers around the country who recently watched measles cases explode across seven states from a single infected person visiting Disneyland late last year. A low vaccination rate among children, particularly in Southern California, allowed the highly infectious disease to quickly spread, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The discovery of the polio vaccine in 1955 by a University of Pittsburgh research team led by Jonas Salk is "a story that has to be retold or people forget," said Carl Kurlander, president and CEO of Steeltown Entertainment Project, which produced a 2010 documentary about Pittsburgh's involvement in the discovery, "A Shot Felt 'Round the World."

Since the measles outbreak, Kurlander said he's been fielding calls from health providers, rabbis and other religious leaders from around the country seeking DVDs of the documentary and more information so they can share with patients and congregations about the importance of vaccination.

"It's very topical," Kurlander said. "It's more pertinent than ever."

While there are still three countries where transmission of polio has never been interrupted — Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan — great strides have been made elsewhere since 1955, when 600,000 around the world were infected with poliomyelitis. India, with its 1 billion people, was officially removed from the list of countries with active transmission in 2012.

"There's no technical reason why there should be cases anywhere in the world by the end of this year," said Oliver Rosenbauer, communications officer for the World Health Organization's Global Polio Eradication Initiative. "It's a question of political will and societal will."

WHO is progressing on a five-year plan that ends in 2018 that would not only wipe out all cases, but also ensure that a framework is in place to prevent any resurgence of the disease, he said.

So far this year 21 cases have been reported in the world — 20 in Pakistan, where there has been a flare-up, and one in Afghanistan, according to the latest figures compiled by the World Health Organization. Nigeria — where an 11-month boycott in the northern Islamic states against polio vaccination in 2003-04 caused cases to swell and spread to 14 previously polio-free countries — has not had a reported case in more than six months. There were six cases of wild polio reported there in all of 2014 (and an additional 30 derived from the vaccine).

Attention is now focused on an emergency situation in Pakistan, where an outbreak occurred in 2014 of 306 wild polio cases. Most of the country is polio-free, with cases concentrated in a northern tribal areas of the country.

The vaccination initiative in Pakistan is no longer overseen by just the ministry of health, but by the prime minister's office. "They need an all-government approach," he said, noting that this is what has proven successful in virtually eliminating polio in Nigeria.

Health volunteers are trying to immunize 35 million children under age 5 in Pakistan, and while communities are quite receptive to vaccination, Rosenbauer said, there has been violence against some health workers in the past who have been targeted by anti-government militants.

Eradication efforts worldwide have been spearheaded by a public-private partnership of the WHO, United Nations Children's Fund, Rotary International, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — and the hundreds of volunteers who have run vaccination clinics or gone door-to-door to inoculate children.

To mark Sunday's historic occasion, the Smithsonian Channel is scheduled to show an updated version of Kurlander's original documentary called "A Shot to Save the World," a shortened, 47-minute program that includes a rare interview with Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates. His foundation has named polio eradication a top priority among its vaccination campaigns.

The original documentary is available for $20 at, and free shipping is available in April in honor of the 60th anniversary.

In 2010, Kurlander, also a senior lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh, launched a "viral" video contest called "Take a Shot at Changing the World," which asked middle and high school students to make their own videos about the development of the polio vaccine and today's efforts to eradicate the disease. The video contest has continued annually on various themes.

This year, the contest is asking young people to create two- to five-minute movies about a person, place or thing (past or present) with a focus in one of the areas in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) or one of several special categories. Submission deadline is April 30. Full details:

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