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Polio epidemic offers hope for new threat

Vaccine was developed by Pitt researcher

April 10, 2020 Digital Media Exclusive

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Dr. Jonas Salk, right, the Pittsburgh scientist who developed the polio vaccine, administers an injection to a boy at Arsenal Elementary School in Pittsburgh on Feb. 23, 1954.

The vaccine worked.

The devastating illness came with force each summer — paralyzing more than 13,000 children each year. It put more in crutches, wheelchairs or iron lungs, and killed thousands.

Polio closed swimming pools and movie theaters. Parents barred their children from playgrounds. Birthday parties were canceled.

Each and every summer from 1916 to the mid-1950s, Americans — wherever there was an outbreak — effectively practiced social distancing.

Even then, it wasn’t enough to stop the spread.

The disease reached its peak in 1952, when nearly 60,000 children were infected and more than 3,000 died.

Tom Grant, a member of the Zelienople Rotary Club, co-chairs that club’s polio committee with his wife, Marie. Grant, contracted it in 1953 at the age of 17.

But on April 12, 1955, a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, Jonas Salk, declared his poliovirus vaccine to be “safe, effective and potent.”

By the 1960s, cases of poliomyelitis fell to fewer than 100. In the 1970s, there were fewer than 10 cases. And the last known case of polio in the United States came in 1979 — the same year smallpox was eradicated worldwide.

And according to Carl Kurlander, director of “The Shot Felt ’Round The World” — a documentary on Salk and his polio vaccine — those facts offer hope during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“People have to remember: we’ve done this before,” said Kurlander, now a senior lecturer of film and media studies at the University of Pittsburgh, in a phone call Friday.

Kurlander made no pretense of being a medical expert, but said he sees a number of parallels between the annual polio outbreaks and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic — namely ventilators and iron lungs, businesses being closed, and parties canceled out of fear the disease would spread.

This is an excerpt from a larger article that appeared in Sunday’s Butler Eagle. Subscribe online or in print to read the full article.

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