A recent article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette titled “Sixty Years Later, Recalling the Jonas Salk Polio ‘Miracle’” written by Virginia Linn keeps the myth of the so-called miracle of the Salk polio vaccine alive and well.1 It also serves as a continuing testimony to the laziness of the mainstream media to do its historical homework. Ms. Linn’s piece opens with, “Sixty years ago this coming Sunday (April 12), the Salk polio vaccine was declared ‘safe, effective and potent,’ an announcement cheered with the fervor of a national holiday. At the time, the dreaded disease was infecting more than 50,000 children in the United States a year, killing many and leaving some so paralyzed they could breathe only with the help of an iron lung.”1
It is true that before the Salk vaccine was introduced in 1955, more than 50,000 people in the US contracted polio in one year. In 1952, a total of 52,879 people got polio. But by 1955, the numbers had already declined by 45%. In 1953, 35,592 contracted polio in the US. In 1954, it was 38,476. In 1955, it was 28,985.2
So it is a fact of history that the numbers dropped precipitously before the Salk vaccine was widely distributed. Now, let’s start with 1954 when medical researcher and virologist Salk actually came up with his inactivated injectable polio vaccine. That same year, the government redefined polio. According to Dr. Bernard Greenberg, head of the Department of Biostatistics of the University of North Carolina School of Public Health:
In order to qualify for classification as paralytic poliomyelitis, the patient had to exhibit paralytic symptoms for at least 60 days after the onset of the disease. Prior to 1954, the patient had to exhibit paralytic symptoms for only 24 hours. Laboratory confirmation and the presence of residual paralysis were not required. After 1954, residual paralysis was determined 10 to 20 days and again 50 to 70 days after the onset of the disease. This change in definition meant that in 1955 we started reporting a new disease, namely, paralytic poliomyelitis with a longer lasting paralysis.3
Under the new definition of polio, thousands of cases which would have previously been counted as polio would no longer be counted as polio. The change in the definition laid the groundwork for creating the impression that the Salk vaccine was effective.
In 1955, the government began a nationwide mass vaccination campaign using the Salk vaccine. From 1957 to 1958, the number of polio cases (despite the new, stricter definition) spiked upward by 50% because the vaccine itself induced paralysis.4 5 From 1958 to 1959, polio cases increased by 80%.4 Afterward, polio began to decline, probably because the bulk of the vaccinations had already been given during the second half of the 1950s… and because of the new, stricter definition. In 1960, there were only 3,190 cases of polio, compared to 8,425 in 1959.2
The number of polio cases would have been even much higher in 1957-1959 had the government not changed the rules in midstream. By then, though, Jonas Salk had already been on the cover of TIME magazine and was an international hero. There were good reasons that polio dramatically declined in the US, but Mr. Salk and his vaccine was not necessarily one of them. In fact, polio declined despite the Salk vaccine.
1 Linn, V. Sixty Years Later, Recalling the Jonas Salk Polio ‘Miracle. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Apr. 7, 2015.
2 The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. U.S. Polio Cases 1952-1962. The History of Vaccines.
3 James W. Immunization The Reality Behind the Myth. p. 36.
4 Chaitow L. Vaccination and Immunisation: Dangers, Delusions and Alternatives (What Every Parent Should Know). The C. W. Daniel Company Limited 1987.
5 Fitzpatrick M. The Cutter Incident: How America’s First Polio Vaccine Led to a Growing Vaccine Crisis. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine Mar. 2006; 99(3): 156.