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NBC Radio – Meet The Press – Guest: Dr. Leonard Scheele – June 5, 1955 – Gordon Skene Sound Collection –
The Polio Epidemic of 1955 – During the early 1950s, polio rates in the U.S. were above 25,000 annually; in 1952 and 1953, the U.S. experienced an outbreak of 58,000 and 35,000 polio cases, respectively, up from a typical number of some 20,000 a year, with deaths in those years numbering 3,200 and 1,400. Amid this U.S. polio epidemic, millions of dollars were invested in finding and marketing a polio vaccine by commercial interests, including Lederle Laboratories in New York under the direction of H. R. Cox. Also working at Lederle was Polish-born virologist and immunologist Hilary Koprowski of the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia, who tested the first successful polio vaccine, in 1950. His vaccine, however, being a live attenuated virus taken orally, was still in the research stage and would not be ready for use until five years after Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine (a dead-virus injectable vaccine) had reached the market. Koprowski’s attenuated vaccine was prepared by successive passages through the brains of Swiss albino mice. By the seventh passage, the vaccine strains could no longer infect nervous tissue or cause paralysis. After one to three further passages on rats, the vaccine was deemed safe for human use. On 27 February 1950, Koprowski’s live, attenuated vaccine was tested for the first time on an 8-year-old boy living at Letchworth Village, an institution for the physically and mentally disabled located in New York. After the child suffered no side effects, Koprowski enlarged his experiment to include 19 other children.
The first effective polio vaccine was developed in 1952 by Jonas Salk and a team at the University of Pittsburgh that included Julius Youngner, Byron Bennett, L. James Lewis, and Lorraine Friedman, which required years of subsequent testing. Salk went on CBS radio to report a successful test on a small group of adults and children on 26 March 1953; two days later, the results were published in JAMA. Leone N. Farrell invented a key laboratory technique that enabled the mass production of the vaccine by a team she led in Toronto. Beginning 23 February 1954, the vaccine was tested at Arsenal Elementary School and the Watson Home for Children in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
In April 1955, soon after mass polio vaccination began in the US, the Surgeon General began to receive reports of patients who contracted paralytic polio about a week after being vaccinated with Salk polio vaccine from Cutter pharmaceutical company, with the paralysis limited to the limb the vaccine was injected into. In response the Surgeon General pulled all polio vaccine made by Cutter Laboratories from the market, but not before 250 cases of paralytic illness had occurred. Wyeth polio vaccine was also reported to have paralyzed and killed several children. It was soon discovered that some lots of Salk polio vaccine made by Cutter and Wyeth had not been properly inactivated, allowing live poliovirus into more than 100,000 doses of vaccine. In May 1955, the National Institutes of Health and Public Health Services established a Technical Committee on Poliomyelitis Vaccine to test and review all polio vaccine lots and advise the Public Health Service as to which lots should be released for public use. These incidents reduced public confidence in polio vaccine leading to a drop in vaccination rates.
This episode of Meet The Press, from June of 1955, put it right in the middle of the controversy and gives some idea the complexities of developing and implementing use of a safe vaccine.
Just reminder – sixty-five years ago we were in much the same boat.