In 1894, doctors in Vermont noticed a strange illness spreading throughout the state. Symptoms included fever, sore throat, aches, and difficulty breathing. In some instances, the disease caused paralysis or even death. The virus attacked the nervous system and seemed to hit small children especially hard. The outbreak resulted in 18 deaths and 132 cases of permanent paralysis in Vermont that year. After careful study, doctors finally identified the culprit as poliomyelitis – or polio. Polio ravaged the country and terrified Americans for more than fifty years until a 1955 vaccine promised an 80-90% success rate in preventing the disease. However, within two weeks of being inoculated with the new vaccine, six children developed paralysis and the vaccine was found defective. This incident, known as the Cutter incident, led to changes including increased government oversight in the manufacture and regulation of vaccines.
The 1894 polio outbreak shined a spotlight on polio, which was often referred to as infantile paralysis, and sparked scientists to search for a cure. In 1916, a large polio epidemic hit New York City infecting more than 9,000, resulting in more than 2,000 deaths. Perhaps the most public figure diagnosed with polio was Franklin D. Roosevelt. He contracted the disease in 1921 at the time when nearly 15,000 new cases were diagnosed each year.
Advances in polio treatment led scientists to develop the iron lung in 1928. Some patients lost the ability to breathe on their own when polio paralyzed their chest muscles. The iron lung acted as a respirator using air pressure to expand and contract a patient’s diaphragm, essentially breathing for them at the rate of 16 times a minute. In 2008, America’s longest-living survivor in an iron lung passed away after a power outage shut down her iron lung and a backup generator failed.
In the 1930s, early efforts to create a polio vaccine were unsuccessful. By the 1950s, Dr. Jonas Salk experienced a breakthrough and successfully developed a vaccine using an inactivated strain of the poliovirus (IPV). His vaccine was based on three virulent strains of the virus that were inactivated using a formaldehyde solution. Salk was so confident in his work that in 1953, he vaccinated his own family. A larger trial began in 1954 that provided vaccinations for more than 1 million children, and in April 1955, authorities announced the trial was a success and mass vaccinations could begin. That meant the vaccine needed large scale production and the pharmaceutical industry stepped up to help.
The cheers and relief experienced by Americans quickly turned to shock when within two weeks of receiving the vaccine, six children became paralyzed. Officials discovered that all six children had been inoculated using a vaccine created by Cutter Laboratories in California. The Cutter vaccine was recalled but not before 380,000 of the company’s doses had been administered. It was discovered that the formaldehyde solution Cutter Laboratories used was defective and did not inactivate the virus. Instead, the vaccines administered contained the live poliovirus. The defective vaccine led to 220,000 new infections and caused 164 to become severely paralyzed. Ten children died. The Cutter incident led to a dramatic change in government oversight of vaccine production and also changed medical liability lawsuits when Cutter was found guilty and liable without fault during the trial. Despite the tragic Cutter incident, Salk’s vaccine was successful in the fight against polio. However, the Salk vaccine was replaced in the 1960s when Albert Sabin introduced an oral polio vaccine (OPV) that relied on a weakened poliovirus and proved highly effective.
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