When Dr. Jonas Salk began testing his potential polio vaccine in 1953, he brought it back from his nearby laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh.
“I just hated injections,” recalls 76-year-old son Peter Salk, and the eldest of three brothers. “So my father came home with the polio vaccine and syringes and needles that he sterilized on the stove, boiling them in water, and lined up the children and then administered the vaccine. “
Peter Salk, then 9, was not old enough to fully understand why he and his brothers were receiving this injection. Yet he remembers this shot like no other.
“Somehow, the needle must have missed a nerve, and I didn’t feel it. And so that fixed that moment in my mind, ”he said.
As the world waits for a vaccine for COVID-19, Salk recalled a time when polio terrorized the country every summer.
Children were the hardest hit. In the worst year, 1952, nearly 60,000 children were infected. Many were paralyzed and more than 3,000 died. Frightened parents kept their children away from swimming pools, cinemas and other public places.
The injection of Salk and his brothers marked the beginning of the end of polio. But it was an extended process. What followed was the largest human trial ever, with nearly 2 million American children receiving the potential vaccine. Finally, on April 12, 1955, almost two years after the Salk boys received their injections, the vaccine was declared “safe, effective and powerful”.
“What happened in the country at that time was remarkable. There was joy, ”said Salk. “There was such a relief that this fear, which had hung over everyone’s head for years and years and years, finally disappeared. “
He was one of the great vaccine successes and Jonas Salk became one of the most famous men in America.
Polio was effectively eliminated in the United States in the early 1960s. Since then, it has been phased out worldwide. Today, only a small number of cases occur each year, mainly in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria.
Seth Wenig / AP
A word of warning
Peter Salk, who lives in La Jolla, California, is also a doctor and part-time professor of infectious diseases at the University of Pittsburgh, and he directs the Jonas Salk Legacy Foundation.
To stay safe, he continues to spend time at home with his wife, Ellen, as government restrictions are relaxed and local shops and restaurants begin to reopen.
Given the long family experience in this area, Peter Salk said he was optimistic about the COVID-19 vaccine. But he cautioned against the race ahead before one is fully tested.
“I applaud the federal government for urging to speed things up as much as possible,” he said. “What worries me is that in the past, unexpected events have occurred with unplanned vaccines. “
Her father, who died in 1995, worked on her vaccine for seven years before it was approved. His research was funded by charitable donations and he did not apply for a patent.
When reporter Edward R. Murrow asked Jonas Salk who owned the patent, the doctor replied, “People, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun? “
So, as now, the need to vaccinate was urgent. But there were delays, noted Peter Salk.
“The vaccine was introduced, but discontinuously. It wasn’t done like my father would have liked to see it – “Let’s take him out and put him in every child’s arm,” said Salk.
At one point, a government health official was called to a Senate committee and asked why it was taking so long. Jonas Salk picked up a book and quoted from the episode:
“As for her failure to anticipate the need for adequate vaccines sooner than she did, she replied enthusiastically,” I don’t think anyone could have anticipated the demand from the public. ” ”
Peter Salk said it took about a decade for the polio vaccine to be researched, tested and widely distributed to the American public. He said he hoped it would happen much faster this time.
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