Before the first polio vaccine was introduced 50 years ago, the debilitating and potentially deadly disease struck thousands of American children and adults each year. Developed by Jonas Salk and tested at the University, the miracle vaccine brought about the end of polio in the United States. The announcement of this vaccine as “safe, effective and potent” excited the nation with the promise of protecting current and future generations from the disease. Polio joined smallpox as a vaccination success story, and the successful test led to a global movement to eradicate the disease. The University has reason to be proud in remembering this breakthrough and must continue to promote scientific research with the same spirit that drove Salk to success.
Salk’s vaccine arrived when the polio threat had thoroughly penetrated America, affecting more than 20,000 people with the paralyzing strain of polio annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In one of the largest trials in U.S. history, Salk tested his vaccine on 1.8 million children to ensure its safety and effectiveness. Within 10 years of the vaccine’s introduction, the number of cases in the United States dropped to just more than 100 annually.
Today, polio has been completely eradicated in most parts of the world. Large-scale efforts have drastically reduced the occurrence of polio, but the fight is far from over – more than 1,000 people in six African and Asian nations were infected with polio in 2004. While the eradication of polio from the Western Hemisphere, announced in 1994, marks a great medical achievement, other nations must not be forgotten. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative, sponsored by the World Health Organization, has set 2005 as a target year for the worldwide eradication of polio, but this goal may be thwarted by financial difficulties.
The work of Salk and his colleagues was monumental and pushed the University forward as a leader in medical research. The United States currently faces new domestic and international challenges to public health, like cancer and the global AIDS epidemic, which must be met with the same vigor as the fight against polio 50 years ago. The University has the opportunity to greatly contribute to these efforts, and the Life Sciences at Michigan program represents the potential to make a difference in the lives of millions. The University should ensure that its Life Sciences at Michigan program, strengthened by the recently-completed Life Science Institute, is effective in facilitating promising research initiatives. In commemorating the 50th anniversary of Salk’s achievement, the University must look to the future to establish its role as a leading innovator of life science research and technologies.