History is a powerful thing. If you accurately tell the story of an event that occurred, you get one picture, one understanding of it. Leave one tiny little detail out, however, and the whole picture changes. You can get thousands of details right, but get one wrong, or simply omit telling it, and an historical event can become so distorted that it becomes a lie. Take the story of the Salk inactivated polio vaccine (IPV). During the first half of the 1950s, Jonas Salk, MD developed the first injectable vaccine against polio containing inactivated, or “killed”, strains of the poliovirus.
As a dead, rather than live, virus vaccine, Dr. Salk’s IPV supposedly carried no risk of giving recipients “vaccine-associated polio paralysis.”1 According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “IPV is produced from wild-type poliovirus strains of each serotype that have been inactivated (killed) with formalin.”2
Here’s that little detail, though. The poliovirus that Dr. Salk killed with formalin, or formaldehyde, were not always killed; they sometimes only appeared to be killed.
Live poliovirus, which was put in an injectable vaccine, would appear to be inactivated right after it was made, but sometimes it would ‘resurrect’ in the vial… In essence, the formaldehyde did not kill off all the polioviruses in these vaccines, which led to live polio viruses being injected. As a result, more people developed paralysis from the vaccine in 1955 than would have developed it from a wild, normal natural poliovirus.3
Field trials for the Salk vaccine were conducted on more than 1,800,000 children in the United States in 1954.4 Sponsored by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (NFIP), now known as the March of Dimes, “623,972 schoolchildren were injected with vaccine or placebo, and more than a million others participated as ‘observed’ controls.’5
On April 12, 1955, Thomas Francis Jr., MD, director of the Poliomyelitis Vaccine Evaluation Center at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, announced to the world that the Salk vaccine was “safe, effective, and potent,”—that it was “up to 90%” effective in preventing paralytic polio. Dr. Francis had been one of Dr. Salk’s professors at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health Department of Epidemiology where Salk did his postgraduate training.4
During mid-April of 1955, about 400,000 people—mostly schoolchildren—in the U.S. were vaccinated with the Salk vaccine manufactured by Cutter Laboratories.6 It turns out that more than 200,000 of these children, living in five western and midwestern states (Arizona, California, Idaho, Nevada and New Mexico7), were injected with vaccines “in which the process of inactivating the live virus proved to be defective.” The Cutter-produced vaccines ended up causing 40,000 cases of polio. It severely paralyzed 200 children and killed 10.8
The first of these cases to be reported was that of a young girl named Susan Pierce, who had received the vaccine on April 18, 1955.7
Five days later, she developed fever and neck stiffness. Six days later, her left arm was paralyzed. Seven days later, she was placed in an iron lung, and nine days later, she was dead.7
In his book The Cutter Incident: How America’s First Polio Vaccine Led to the Growing Vaccine Crisis, Paul Offit, MD writes, “Seventy-five percent of Cutter’s victims were paralyzed for the rest of their lives.” A team led by epidemiologisit Alexander Langmuir of the Communicable Diseases Center (now the CDC) in Atlanta, GA determined that “the disease caused by Cutter’s vaccine was worse than the disease caused by natural polio virus,” adds Dr. Offit.7
Children given Cutter’s vaccine were more likely to be paralyzed in their arms, more likely to suffer severe and permanent paralysis, more likely to require breathing assistance in iron lungs, and more likely to die than children naturally infected with polio.7
The so-called “Cutter Incident” led to the recall of the Cutter vaccine and the eventual replacement of the Salk IPV with the attenuated (weakened) live oral polio vaccine (OPV) developed by Albert Sabin, MD and introduced in 1963. (A modified inactivated Salk vaccine was re-introduced in the 1990s after the only cases of polio occurring in the U.S. were vaccine strain polio cases because live OPV can cause vaccine strain polio in the recipient or a close contact of a recently vaccinated person shedding live vaccine strain polio virus in body fluids.)8
But the fact that some improperly inactivated lots of the original polio vaccine paralyzed and killed American children was concealed from the public for a long time.
In their book Dissolving Illusions: Disease, Vaccines, and The Forgotten History, Suzanne Humphries, MD and Roman Bystrianyk write, “You may be wondering how this information was concealed from the public for nearly fifty years. Congressman Percy Priest ordered and chaired a full investigation of the vaccine controversy.”)9 According to them, Congressman Priest, who represented the 6th District of Tennessee, admitted in 1956 that,
… in the previous year (1955) many responsible persons had felt that the public should be spared the ordeal of ‘knowledge about controversy.’ If word ever got out that the Public Health Service had actually done something damaging to the health of the American people, the consequences would b terrible… We felt that no lasting good could come to science or the public if the Public Health Services were discredited.”9
Two key points to note here. First, the problem with the Cutter-produced vaccine should have come as a surprise to the scientists and public health officials who were familiar with the development of the Salk IPV. According to Dr. Humphries and Bystrianyk:
The Salk invention was an injectable, supposedly formaldehyde-inactivated version of poliovirus vaccine. There were serious problems with the viral inactivation process that were known by insiders from the outset of the vaccine’s development.9
Unfortunately, whenever scientists involved in the vaccine’s development raised concerns that poliovirus had not been fully killed, they were “rapidly subdued.”9
As a result of ignoring the warnings by highly qualified scientists who repeatedly and publicly explained why and how the inactivation process was flawed from the beginning, the vaccine virus needlessly infected, paralyzed, and killed children and their household contacts.9
Secondly, Cutter Laboratories was not the only manufacturer of the the Salk IPV. Wyeth Laboratories also produced a defective Salk vaccine that caused paralysis. Other pharmaceutical companies are believed to have done so, as well. But only Cutter’s vaccine was recalled. This means that, potentially, tens of millions of doses of improperly inactivated “live” Salk vaccine were sold and injected into children in the U.S. and around the world until the “inactivated” Salk vaccine was replaced by the live oral Sabin vaccine in the early-1960s.
This may help explain, at least partially, why the cases of polio in the U.S. increased by 50% from 1957 to 1958, and by 80% between 1958 and 1959.10 According to Bernard Greenberg, PhD, head of the Department of Biostatistics at the University of North Carolina School of Public Health:
In five New England states cases of polio roughly doubled after polio vaccine was introduced. Nevertheless in the midst of the polio panic of the 1950s, with pressure to find a magic bullet, statistics were manipulated by health authorities to give the quite the opposite impression.10
Keep in mind that these dramatic increases in polio following the introduction of the Salk IPV occurred shortly after the U.S. government had already significantly relaxed its guidelines for diagnosing polio. In 1954, the government redefined polio. I wrote about this other little detail of history that has been widely overlooked in my article “Polio Wasn’t Vanquished, It Was Redefined.”11 Dr. Greenberg explained this classic example of government sleight of hand…
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.12
We can only imagine how much worse the official number of polio cases would have been during the second half of the 1950s had the same diagnosis standard continued to be followed, rather than arbitrarily changed in midstream. By any measure, the early Salk polio vaccine campaigns cannot be termed an unqualified “success.” Yet, since the story has been so repeatedly, utterly inaccurately told, our understanding of the history of the polio vaccine “miracle” is that it is one of the greatest scientific achievements of all time. And, as we have seen with the Sabin live oral polio vaccine that continues to cause vaccine strain polio cases around the world, there are big questions about how high the price has been—and will continue to be—for using that polio vaccine as well.
History is indeed a powerful thing. If you teach it wrong for more than half a century, it is hard to unteach, because a particular version of a story can become so ingrained in the public’s collective memory that few can accept that what we’ve come to believe to be an unquestioned scientific truth is, in fact, a myth.
And if that sacred cow is an illusion, then what else may we have gotten wrong along the way? Suddenly, mainstream vaccine science doesn’t feel so certain, so… scientific.
1 Polio Global Eradication Initiative. Inactivated polio vaccine (IPV). polioeradication.org.
2 World Health Organization. Inactivated polio vaccine (IPV). WHO.int
3 Mercola J. The Forgotten History of Vaccinations You Need to Be Aware Of. Mercola.com Jan. 18, 2015.
4 University of Michigan School of Public Health. 1955 Polio Vaccine Trial Announcement. sph.umich.edu.
5 Meldrum M. “A calculated risk”: the Salk polio vaccine field trials of 1954. BMJ Oct. 31, 1998; 317(7167): 1233–1236.
6 Nathanson N, Langmuir AD. The Cutter Incident: Poliomyelitis Following Formaldehyde-Inactivated Poliovirus Vaccination in the United States During the Spring of 1955. Am J Epidemiol Mar. 12, 1963.
7 Offit P. The Cutter Incident: How America’s First Polio Vaccine Led to the Growing Vaccine Crisis. 2005, p 84.
8 Fitzpatrick M. The Cutter Incident: How America’s First Polio Vaccine Led to the Growing Vaccine Crisis. J R Soc Med March 2006; 99(3): 156.
9 Humphries S, Bystrianyk R. Dissolving Illusions: Disease, Vaccines, and The Forgotten History. July 27, 2013.
10 Chaitow L. Vaccination and Immunisation: Dangers, Delusions and Alternatives. 1998, p. 55.
11 Cáceres M. Polio Wasn’t Vanquished, It Was Redefined. The Vaccine Reaction July 9, 2015.
12 James W. Immunization The Reality Behind the Myth. 1995, p. 36.