(WHTM) — It’s one of my memories from elementary school in the 1960s
Everybody lining up in a row to get a sugar cube. A small drop of sweet, cherry-flavored liquid was applied to each cube. You popped into your mouth, and just like that, you were inoculated against polio, thanks to the Sabin Vaccine.
On Oct. 6, 1956, Albert Bruce Sabin announced his oral polio vaccine was ready for testing, following research he began in the 1930s.
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People today do not understand what the frightening disease polio was in the 20th century. According to the National Institutes of Health, during the first half of the century polio epidemics broke out during the hot season. The disease mostly infected children, though occasionally an adult would suffer from the disease. (One Franklin Delano Roosevelt comes to mind.)
“The most severely affected persons died or were left paralyzed, deformed, and unable to breathe outside an iron lung.” says the NIH. “Although a relatively low percentage of those affected died, millions of survivors carried the marks of the disease for the rest of their lives.” And it just kept getting worse. Between 1950 and 1952, severe or fatal U.S. cases doubled to 55,000, with around 3,100 deaths and 21,000 cases of paralysis in 1952 alone.
In 1939, Sabin’s research established that polio was not a respiratory virus as many believed, but instead lived and multiplied in the intestine. He proved the disease spread both by coughing and sneezing, and by the “enteric route”, which is a polite way of saying fecal contamination.
At this point, World War II intervened. Sabin served with the U.S. Army Epidemiological Board’s Virus Committee, developing vaccines for encephalitis (sleeping sickness), sand-fly fever, and dengue fever.
Returning to his studies at the University of Cincinnati, Sabin set out to develop a polio vaccine. His goal was to create a vaccine that could be taken by mouth, using live, weakened (attenuated) viruses.
But by the time he announced his vaccine, another was already in use, the Salk vaccine, invented by Jonas Salk at the University of Pittsburg. The vaccine, which was licensed on April 12, 1955, used a killed virus administered by a shot. the March of Dimes promoted a mass immunization campaign, with dramatic results-polio cases dropped from 35,000 in 1953 to 5,600 by 1957, and a mere 161 cases in 1961.
Then came the big setback-the Cutter Incident of 1955. The Surgeon General started getting reports of people getting polio after receiving the vaccine. It turned out that some batches of vaccine were improperly prepared, and contained live poliovirus.
The result? Some 40,000 cases of polio, with 10 deaths. Partly because of this incident, and partly because people had trouble accepting the idea that a live virus vaccine could be as safe as a killed virus vaccine, The U.S. Government decided against conducting a large-scale test of the Sabin vaccine. As a result, it ended up being tested in the Soviet Union and Mexico. It proved safe and effective and was licensed for use in the United States in 1961. Using both vaccines, the United States was able to declare polio eliminated in 1979.
The Sabin vaccine became the vaccine of choice for the World Health Organization’s effort to eradicate polio worldwide. It’s been a very successful campaign; most of the world is now polio-free. But it still exists in certain areas, and we must be on the watch for outbreaks, sometimes in unexpected areas. Earlier this year, New York State declared a state of emergency after a case of polio was discovered, and polio viruses were discovered in wastewater samples.
(The Sabin vaccine also made an unexpected contribution to popular culture. In the early 1960s, songwriters Robert and Richard Sherman were working on some tunes for an upcoming movie. One of Robert’s children told him about getting the vaccine on a sugar cube. This inspired the song “A Spoonful of Sugar Help the Medicine Go Down”, one of the most popular tunes from the 1964 movie Mary Poppins.)