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Thank You, Dr. Jonas Salk!

Byline: Aarathi

We are all aware of Ebola today. Less than a hundred years ago, another epidemic was sweeping across the world.

Polio - short for Poliomyelitis, had been around for centuries. However, by the mid 1940s and 1950s, nearly half a million people worldwide were dying from it each year. The disease, if it did not kill its victim, led to paralysis and many previously healthy children were denied their childhood.

Dr. Jonas Salk's successful experiments led to the creation of a vaccine that has successfully eradicated the diease from many parts of the world. Read Youngzine's earlier article HERE on the disease and how the vaccine works. On 28th of October, the world celebrated Dr. Salk's 100th birthday, with Google even coming out with a special commemorative doodle.

Jonas Salk: Early Days

Jonas Salk was born to immigrant Jewish parents in New York. He started his career as a medical researcher in the University of Michigan, where he was closely associated with developing the first-ever vaccine for influenza. His mentor there, Dr.Thomas Francis, introduced him to the world of virology (study of viruses). Jonas Salk was hooked to the subject for the rest of his life!

In 1921, Franklin D.Roosevelt, who later became the U.S. President, caught a polio infection which left him crippled and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. This experience drove him to set up the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis in 1938, to spread awareness of polio, raise funds for research and to help care for affected children.

In 1948, Jonas Salk, now the Director of the Virus Research Laboratory at the University of Pittsburg's School of Medicine, was approached by this foundation with an offer of funding. They wanted him to develop a vaccine for polio.

Injecting A 'Live' Virus

At that time, the most common approach to a polio vaccine was to inject a 'live'-strain of virus to trigger the human body to produce the necessary antibodies. The problem was that the virus needed to be contained before it developed into a full-fledged infection.

Salk had quite a different idea. He discovered that a chemical (formaldehyde) could kill the virus, but it would still be potent enough to trick the human body into producing the antibodies. It took him four years of hard work to develop this inactivated-virus vaccine. It was initially tested on monkeys - and among the first human tests were Salk's own family members too!

The vaccine was declared safe and a success in 1955. The number of reported polio cases in the US dropped by 97% - there were a reported 40,000 cases a year before the vaccine was introduced.

A Man With A Mission

Salk and his team made no effort to patent their vaccine. Salk famously asked - "Could you patent the Sun?" Salk's close competitor Albert Sabin developed an even more inexpensive vaccine, based on the live-virus approach. Between the two vaccines, several countries all over the world have been declared polio-free.

Salk established the Salk Institute for Biological studies at La Jolla near San Diego in California, which continues to carry out pioneering work in the fields of neurosciences, molecular biology and genetics. Until 1995, when he passed away, Dr.Salk had been actively working on a vaccine for AIDS, as well as research on other autoimmune diseases such as cancer and multiple sclerosis.

Thank you, Dr. Jonas Salk!



Side notes: Did You Know - March Of Dimes!

Recently, the polio foundation was renamed March of Dimes Foundation, after its popular and original fund-raising drives that encouraged children to drop a dime into their collection boxes.

To learn more Polio and what the world is doing about it, check out these websites

History of Vaccines
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Title Annotation:Society/Arts; polio vaccine inventor
Article Type:In memoriam
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 31, 2014
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