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American physicians Jonas Salk (1914–1995) and Albert B. Sabin (1906– ) invented vaccines (substances introduced into the body in order to produce immunity to disease) to prevent poliomyelitis (called polio or infantile paralysis), an infection caused by a virus that attacks the central nervous system. Polio exists throughout the world, and in 1952 more than 21,000 cases of the most serious form of polio—paralytic polio—were reported in the United States alone. Polio sufferers were mainly children who, if they survived, might be paralyzed for life.
In 1953 Salk created a vaccine that contained the killed viruses of the three kinds of polio then known. Salk was so certain of the vaccine's safety that he tested it on himself and his family with great success. Then, with support from the March of Dimes (then called the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis), 1,800,000 school children were injected with the Salk polio vaccine. In 1955 the vaccine was declared a success and Salk earned numerous accolades and awards.
Sabin was also developing a vaccine, which used weakened but live polio viruses and was to be taken by mouth. It was first produced in 1959. Both Salk's and Sabin's vaccines had its advantages. The Sabin vaccine is easier to administer because it is taken by mouth, while the Salk vaccine requires getting several shots. Yet the Salk vaccine is safer for people whose immune systems do not work well and for adults who have never been vaccinated. In rare cases, the Sabin vaccine has caused a recipient to contract polio and become paralyzed. Although doctors and public health officials debated widely which vaccine is superior, together the Salk and Sabin vaccines wiped out polio in many countries. Both types of vaccines continue to be used today.
Further Information: Curson, Marjorie. Jonas Salk. Parsippany, N.J.: Silver Burdett, 1990; Curtis, Robert H. Great Lives: Medicine. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1993, pp. 281–92; Mulcahy, Robert. Diseases: Finding the Cure. Minneapolis, Minn.: Oliver Press, 1996; Sherrow, Victoria. Jonas Salk. New York: Facts On File, 1993.
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