Eradication of Polio

As early as 1910, two anti-polio serums became available as a means of preventing the spread of poliomyelitis. The first serum, called normal serum, was developed in 1910 by researchers at the Pasteur Institute in France. This serum was made from the blood of healthy adults, based on the concept that adults had a natural immunity to the poliovirus. The second serum was made from the blood of patients who had previously been infected with, and recovered from, poliomyelitis. This approach to developing immunity was based on research done on a monkey serum by Constanin Levaditi, Karl Landsteiner, Simon Flexner, and Paul Lewis. Although the theory behind both serums appeared to be a hopeful solution to combating the poliovirus, the serums themselves proved to be mostly ineffective and lost support.23

During the height of the wave of polio epidemics, both Dr. Jonas Salk and Dr. Albert Sabin were independently in pursuit of an effective vaccine. In 1955, the inactivated (killed) polio vaccine (IPV) of Dr. Jonas Salk was approved for distribution and became the first method of combating poliomyelitis after nearly 40 successive years of major epidemics within the United States.

The Salk vaccine was delivered through injection and required a trained health worker. This method of vaccination produces serum immunity through the production of protective antibodies in the blood. Consequently, the central nervous system is protected, but the alimentary tract receives little immune support and the wild polio virus can still spread. As the first available vaccine, it received a great deal of use and was widely distributed.

In 1961, Dr. Albert Sabin introduced the live attenuated oral poliomyelitis vaccine (OPV) to the general public. The Sabin OPV offered individuals immunity through the production of antibodies in the blood, as well as an intestinal immune response to prevent further spread of the wild virus. Oral administration of this vaccine allowed for a wider and less-expensive distribution effort in which trained health professionals were not needed. This became the preferred vaccine and is currently used in worldwide polio eradication.24

Charlottesville residents received the Sabin vaccine in the Spring of 1963 through the Stamp Out Polio Forever initiative led by the Albemarle County Medical Society. On three different Sundays throughout the spring, March 24, April 21, and May 19, the Society held clinics at 14 locations throughout Charlottesville to administer the vaccine. Each Sunday offered a different variation of the Sabin vaccine, with the hopes that all participants would receive all three. The Society planned to vaccinate 95% of the Charlottesville population with all three doses. Even those who had previously been given the Salk vaccine were encouraged to take the Sabin vaccine to prevent further spread of poliomyelitis.25

With the introduction of poliomyelitis vaccines beginning in the fifties, the use of the iron lung decreased drastically, even to the extent that many generations who were born after the crest of the polio epidemic have had little or no knowledge of its existence.