The 1952 polio epidemic killed 3,145 and paralysed 21,269 men, women and children in the US.  Two years later, on 23 February 1954, Virologist Jonas Salk brought a glimmer of hope to Pittsburgh.  On this day,  61 years ago, the first large-scale inoculations of children began today. Just over a year later, the vaccine was declared by the University of Michigan to be ‘safe and effective’, in fact 80-90% effective, at inoculating children from polio. Such was the public delight and relief at this outcome that church bells were rung, factories had moments of silence, churches held prayer meetings, and parents wept over the news.

By the middle of 1957, 100 million doses had been given through the US. The annual cases of polio had fallen from 35,000 to 5,600 by 1957. This fell further with the introduction of an additional oral vaccine developed by a team led by Albert Sabin. What was particularly staggering about these researchers is that neither of them patented the vaccine, which could have been worth around $7 billion dollars to Salk alone, yet would have greatly hindered its distribution due to the increased cost.[1] When television presenter Ed Murrow asked Salk, “Who owns this patent?”, Salk’s reply was, “No one. Could you patent the sun?”[2]

As such, the vaccination programme was a triumph of human philanthropy, both of the public fundraising and of the refusal of the researchers to patent. The fact that the disease that, just over half a century ago, was crippling tens of thousands of children, has complete eradication status in all but a few countries, is a triumph of modern medicine. This was the true reward of the research teams. It brings a poignant truth to Jesus’ words recorded in Acts 20:35, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

The Leprosy Mission Ireland continues to fight for the final eradication of Leprosy, a disease which still affects around a quarter of a million men, women and children worldwide. The inspirational solidarity and cooperation that resulted in the downfall of polio is paramount to the battle against leprosy – accurate awareness and effective communication is needed between organisations. At present, we are petitioning for greater cooperation between the World Health Organisation and our efforts to administer treatment to those affected by Leprosy. Together, inspired by the efforts of people like Jonas Salk, we can work to make the exclusion and disability associated with Leprosy a distant remnant of the past.

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[1], accessed 16 February 2015.

[2] Jane S. Smith,  Patenting the Sun: Polio and The Salk Vaccine (New York: William Morrow)