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Polio is Zero Fun, and This Pittsburgh Legend Made The Cure.

Dr. Jonas Salk

Dr. Jonas Salk stands in the University of Pittsburgh laboratory in which he developed a vaccine for polio. The photo was taken in 1956.

When you think about it, we’ve come a long way in the field of modern medicine. From the first time bacteria was observed through a microscope in 1676, scientists have yearned to understand microbial effects on the environment and the human body. Whether spontaneous or controlled, the new concept of this unseen world tended to hinge on new scientific models and hypotheses; many of which proved revolutionary for the modern era. You’re probably familiar with Pasteurization, a method developed by French scientist Louis Pasteur to sterilize liquids from infection by microorganisms. Less familiar to non-scientists is the work of Ferdinand Cohn, who classified bacteria into four groups, which is still in use throughout the scientific and medical community. In 1876, German physician Robert Koch drew from Cohn’s work and proved microbes could cause disease through tests with anthrax and cattle.

You might be wondering at this point the purpose of the brief history lesson about germs and bacteria. You may not realize Pittsburgh is home to one of the foremost medical innovations in history; the Salk vaccine (also known as the IPV). Prior to the development of the vaccine, fears of contracting polio were common, as the disease ravages the human body’s nerve cells, sometimes resulting in paralysis as in the case of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In 1947, Dr. Jonas Salk was appointed director of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine’s Virus Research Laboratory where he began utilizing research to reduce the risk of polio contraction and develop a possible cure for the disease. Salk understood previous vaccines, such as those for smallpox, rabies, and yellow fever, contained “attenuated forms of viruses” and applied this knowledge to seeking prevention for the poliomyelitis strain.[1]

Salk’s theory hypothesized that it was crucial to use the body’s own antibody response in the bloodstream to block virus infection in the central nervous system. In addition, Salk noted the “herd effect,” which advocated for the decrease in the number of transmitters by reducing the spread of the poliomyelitis virus.[2] Through this, Salk tested his “killed” virus vaccine on individuals who had no previous diagnoses of polio, including himself and members of his family in his initial sample group and discovered no ill effects. By April 1954, the vaccine was launched nationwide which produced immediate positive results. Prior to the widespread availability of the vaccine (and its relative boosters), there were more than 45,000 cases of polio in the United States. A decade later, the number decreased to 910.[3]

Today, polio eradication is a worldwide effort. According to the World Health Organization, polio diagnoses have decreased by 99% since 1988 worldwide, with only 37 reported cases of one strain of the poliomyelitis virus.[4] Though there is no cure for the disease, the vaccine has proven to be incredibly effective combating a historically crippling disorder. All thanks to Dr. Jonas Salk’s perseverance in the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Medicine.

[1] Dr. Jonas Salk and Dr. Darrell Salk, “Control of Influenza and Poliomyelitis with Killed Virus Vaccines,” Science 195, no. 4281 (March 1977): 834-847. This included notes from his studies on influenza vaccines at his previous role as assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan.

[2] Salk 835. Salk noted that the most common method of poliomyelitis transmission was via oral-oral spread in regions with good sanitation. Otherwise, the virus could be transmitted through contact with fecal matter and pathogen spread through poor sanitation practices.

[3] Statistics taken from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies

[4] Statistics taken from the World Health Organization’s Fact Sheet page as of April 2017