April 4, 2012

Jonas Salk helped human-kind forever

An anniversary that changed the world is coming up, although we don’t even think of it anymore.  It was when the Polio vaccine was created.  
Jonas Salk was a child of poor Jewish immigrant parents living in New York City.  He didn’t receive a regular Public School education, being raised in the devout Jewish culture there.  When he was 13, he was accepted into a public school that took only gifted students.  They crammed 4 years into 3, causing many students to fail.  But Jonas kept studying hard and passed.  

He went to college at age 15, accepted into New York City College.  It was a free college, but really hard to get into.  He graduated in 1934 with a Bachelor’s in Science and headed to Medical School at New York University.  What set him apart there was that he didn’t intend to become a doctor.  He said, “… my preference was to stay with medicine. And, I believe that this is all linked to my original ambition, or desire, which was to be of some help to humankind."
After graduating from Medical school, he did an internship at the University of Michigan, where he worked with a Doctor Francis who was developing the flu vaccine.  He was hooked!  Virology was his field!

Within a few years of developing flu vaccines in his own laboratory, Jonas was asked to work with a group of researchers to discover a vaccine to give protection against the dreaded disease Polio.  With this request came research money to fund the project.  

Polio was a very prevalent disease that often struck children.  It began as muscle weakness, then disability.  The most severe cases caused death.  In 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt came down with the disease and resources became committed to the cause.  The March of Dimes began asking for donations to further research.  The disease had been around since the 1800’s, and an epidemic had occurred between 1914 and 1919.  Each year it struck more people.  By 1952, 60,000 people were diagnosed with it yearly and 3,000 died, while 21,000 were left crippled by it.  Researchers tried for many years to develop a vaccine that would stop this disease, but the experiments they tried often gave the patient the disease.  

Jonas was excited to join the group and try to help.  He wanted to try injecting children with ‘killed’ Polio viruses to see if their bodies would become immune to the disease.  They had been using ‘live’ viruses before then.  It took years of experimentation to isolate the virus, then kill it to make it ready to be used.  It was said that he worked 16 hour days for 2 and a half years to perfect it.  Jonas nearly gave up.  He said that watching children play on a playground made realize that there were thousands of people counting on him to stop this disease or they would be paralyzed and never walk again.  With that thought, he continued his work with ‘renewed vigor.’  

He announced in 1954 that he thought he had a good vaccine.  He was so sure that he injected himself, his wife and children with it.  He had to try it on lots of people to see if it would work, so he had to gain the public’s trust, and this gesture went a long way.  Besides, Polio was so feared that many parents were willing to try almost anything to avoid it.  He got the parents of 1.8 million school children to agree to participate.  

On April 12, 1955, the researchers announced that the trial had been completed and determined that the virus was safe and effective.  It was a historic day, resembling a national holiday.  People observed moments of silence, rang bells in churches, honked horns, blew factory whistles, prayed in churches and synagogues, fired gun salutes, closed the schools or held school assemblies, drank toasts, hugged children, smiled at strangers and forgave enemies.  Mostly, parents and teachers wept.  One would think that a war had ended.  Everyone was grateful to Dr. Jonas Salk for saving their loved ones.

Announcing this big news on that day was calculated.  It was exactly 10 years from the day that President Roosevelt had died.  It was a fitting day to declare Polio was defeated.
Jonas himself became a celebrity overnight.  If he was on an airplane, the pilot would announce it and everyone would break into applause.  He was upgraded to Penthouse suites when he travelled and stayed at a hotel.  And if he was at a restaurant, people would come over and talk to him.  It started to irritate him that his privacy seemed gone forever.  

The vaccine worked in a big way.  In 1962, only 910 cases were noted in the United States, down from more than 37,000 cases in 1954.  Parents didn’t have to worry anymore about losing a child or a childhood by this dreaded disease.  Efforts are still underway to complete destroy this disease from the whole earth.  

Jonas Salk started out with a goal to help humankind.  He studied hard and made the most of the education he could get.  And he worked hard to find the vaccine that would change our world.   What contribution will you make with your hard-earned education?

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