The History of Polio

Polio is a virus that causes paralysis of the lungs and spine and in severe cases death. It is suspected that polio has been around for thousands of years. Ancient Egyptian paintings portray priests with deformed limbs reminiscent of the disease. It was not until the industrial age however that major polio epidemics occurred first in Europe and then in the United States.

The first documented outbreak of Polio in the U.S. occurred in 1884 in Rutland Country, Vermont. Eighteen deaths and 132 cases of infantile paralysis were documented. However British physician Dr. Michael Underwood had written a clinical description of the disease almost 100 years earlier, calling it “debility of the lower extremities”. In 1840 German physician Dr. Jacob von Heine conducted a systematic investigation of the disease and hypothesized that it might be contagious. In 1905 after a series of epidemics in Sweden, Dr. Ivar Wickman published that a report suggesting that polio was contagious and seemed to involve the spine. In 1907 he characterized different types of polio noting that polio could occur in milder forms, which he called “abortive”.

Throughout the 19th century known as “Infantile Paralysis” but in 1908 Austrian physicians Karl Landsteiner and Erwin Popper announced that the disease was viral and it was named poliovirus.  They made this discovery by withdrawing spinal fluid from a patient who had died from the disease and putting it through a bacterial filter. They then inserted the fluid into the spines of monkeys, who then developed the disease. As viral particles are smaller than bacterial particles they concluded that the disease was viral.

In 1916 the first major polio epidemic occurred in the U.S there were 27, 000 cases and 6000 deaths. In New York City alone there were 9000 cases and 2343 deaths. Polio was most common in children however it also affected adults; between 1949 and 1954 35% of the cases were adults. In 1921 Franklin D. Roosevelt contracted the poliovirus at the age of 39. In 1927 he formed the Warms Spring Foundation for polio rehabilitation in Georgia. He then founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis in 1938. The organization still exists today as the March of Dimes, a fundraising organization focused on polio research.

During the late 1940’s and early 1950’s Dr. Jonas Salk at the University of Pittsburg began developing a vaccine for polio and in 1955 he developed the first effective vaccine against polio, the inactive (killed) injectable vaccine. Between 1955 and 1957 the incidence of polio in the U.S. fell by almost 90%. Around the same time Dr. Albert Sabin developed and tested a “live” vaccine. He had to test the vaccine in Russia due to Salk’s monopolization of the U.S.  This became the vaccine of choice world wide due to its easier oral administration and cheaper cost. However as of 1999 the US began using Salk’s inactive virus because of the risk that the active virus could be too strong and lead to the development of polio. Both of these doctors were instrumental to the eradication of polio in North America and Europe.

By 1988 the virus had been completely eradicated in North America, Australia and Western Europe, however it still remained endemic in 125 countries. In 1988 the World Health Organization announced a plan to vaccinate all children in underdeveloped countries. As of 2012, polio is officially endemic in only four countries – Afghanistan, Nigeria, Pakistan and India.

– Lisa Toole

Sources: History of Vaccines, Global Polio Eradication, NMAH, BBC, Polio Today
Photo: Terrierman’s Daily Dose