How the US muddled through the polio vaccine rollout 65 years ago

Patti Benton, 4, prepares to receive a polio immunizing shot. Dr. Mario De Lara administers the shot with assistance from Mrs. Earl Hazelett, left registered nurse, and Mrs. William Benton, member of Junior Woman's club. October 15, 1958. Photo by Valley Times Photo Collection/LA Public Library.

The race to develop and distribute COVID-19 vaccines calls to mind another effort to eradicate polio. The scourge of the early 20th century paralyzed President Franklin Roosevelt. Tens of thousands of children lost the ability to walk for the rest of their lives. Parents wouldn’t let their kids play outside. Commerce and travel between cities were restricted during outbreaks, and quarantines were imposed.

In the mid 1950s came a breakthrough led by University of Pittsburgh virologist Dr. Jonas Salk. He became a household name, founding the medical research institute that bears his name in La Jolla. Before he died in 1995, he focused on finding a vaccine against HIV.

But the polio vaccine rollout wasn’t without its problems — many of which are happening now with COVID.

Credits

Guest:
René Najera - epidemiologist and editor of the History of Vaccines project at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia

Host:
Madeleine Brand

Producers:
Sarah Sweeney, Angie Perrin, Michell Eloy, Amy Ta, Rosalie Atkinson, Brian Hardzinski, Bennett Purser