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Dr. Jonas Salk

In: Historical Events

Submitted By ALLISONmacy
Words 620
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Poliomyelitis (shortened to polio) has been around for thousands of years, and there is still no cure, but at the peak of its devastation in the United
States, Dr. Jonas Salk introduced a way to prevent it. Polio attacks the nerve cells and sometimes the central nervous system, causing muscle wasting, paralysis, and even death. The disease, whose symptoms are flu like, struck mostly children, and in the first half of the 20th century the epidemics of polio were becoming more devastating. Salk, while working at the Virus Research
Lab at the University of Pittsburgh, developed a polio vaccine, and the medical trials to prove its effectiveness and safety are still being analyzed.

Fifty years ago the largest medical experiment in history took place to test Salk’s poliomyelitis vaccine. Close to two million children across the
United States and Canada were involved in the trial, which was administered by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (NFIP), also known as the
March of Dimes. The foundation, created in 1938 by President Franklin D.
Roosevelt (a polio victim) and his law partner Basil O’Connor. Across the
United States, 623,972 school children were injected with the vaccine or a placebo, using a double blind technique in which neither recipient nor administrator knew which one there were getting. The results, announced in
1955, showed good statistical evidence that Jonas Salk’s “killed virus” preparation was 80-90% effective in preventing paralytic poliomyelitis.

The statistical design used in the experiment was singular, prompting criticism. Eighty Four areas in eleven states used a textbook model: in a randomized, blinded design all participating children in the first three grades of school (ages 6-9) received injections of either vaccine for placebo and were observed. At the same time though, 127 test areas in 33 states used an
“observed control” design: where the participating children in the second grade received injections of vaccine, no placebo was given, and children in all three grades were then observed for the duration of the polio season. The use of the dual protocol illustrates both the power and the limitations of randomized clinical trials. The control trials with the placebo were important to define the vaccine as the product of scientific medicine, while the observed trials were done to maintain public support for the vaccine.

In 1953, Salk presented his tests of a polio vaccine to the Immunization
Committee, the scientific advisory committee for the NFIP. The test results seemed promising to Basil O’Connor, as the children had shown no ill effects and the levels of polio antibodies in their blood had risen. However, several of the senior virologist on the committee questioned the relation of antibodies to permanent immunity. Despite the virologist’s critique, O’Connor believed that his organization owed it to the volunteers and donors to proceed and called for the planning of a major field study.

O’Connor, in November of 1953, announced that the field trials would begin in the spring and the observed plan would be used. Within a month, health departments in 38 states had responded, enthusiastic about the prospect of a vaccine. A few state officials however, questioned the impartiality of the evaluation run by the foundation, and not by scientists.
Responding to the criticism O’Connor called an meeting of an advisory group to review the statistical design. When the group convened, it had decided to go strictly with the placebo controlled studies.

This change lessened slightly the criticism of the field trials, and the
National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis tried to reconcile it scientific and political problems by working through state health departments. The critics still denounced the trials as flawed, and the debates of the scientific validity of the experiment continue to this day.

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