Albert Sabin

Albert Sabin


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Few in the history of medicine and science have contributed as much to the world as Dr. Sabin was the developer of the oral live virus polio vaccine, which has saved the lives of countless millions.Childhood and educationAlbert Bruce Sabin was born in 1906 in Bia?ystok, Russia (now Poland). He became the head of pediatric research at the University of Cincinnati.A prolific researcherDr. Sabin turned his attention to it following World War II. He first thought the polio virus gained entrance through the respiratory tract, then found evidence that entry was through the digestive system.Two vaccines comparedWith the growing numbers of people affected with polio, he and other researchers, most notably Dr. Jonas Salk in Pittsburgh, sought a vaccine to prevent or to ameliorate the crippling disease. Salk's vaccine, called the "killed" vaccine, was tested and released for use in 1955. Sabin's vaccine became available some five years later, when the United States Public Health Service endorsed his "live" virus vaccine for polio in 1961.Sabin's oral vaccine offered advantages, especially in less-developed countries. The third advantage was that it produced lifelong immunity without the need of a booster shot or vaccination.By the time the U.S. Public Health Service approved testing, more than 80 million people outside the United States had already taken Sabin's vaccine. test was held on "Sabin Sunday," April 24, 1960.Scientist and humanitarianThroughout Albert Sabin’s life, he served on numerous advisory research committees. Sabin's contributions were not just in the scientific world; he also was known as a humanitarian. He died in 1993, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.


Albert Sabin - History

Dr. Albert B. Sabin, the pioneering researcher on viruses and viral diseases who developed the vaccine that is the main defense against polio in the United States and much of the rest of the world, died yesterday at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington. He was 86 years old and lived in Washington.

The cause of death was congestive heart failure, the hospital said.

He was best known for developing the live-virus polio vaccine, taken orally. It became generally preferred over the alternative killed-virus vaccine developed by Dr. Jonas Salk after a sometimes intense clash between the rival camps and their principals.

Although the Salk polio vaccine, which is injected, proved to be effective in sharply reducing the number of poliomyelitis cases in the United States, after it went on the market in 1955, Dr. Sabin persisted in his efforts to develop a vaccine based on a living virus, which he believed would be superior.

Dr. Sabin&aposs vaccine, which contained harmless, or attenuated, polio viruses, was developed by him and his co-workers at the University of Cincinnati. Before coming into wide use in this country, the vaccine was tested in millions of people in 1958 and 1959 in the Soviet Union, where it proved widely successful. In the United States the vaccine was tested earlier on prisoners who volunteered for the experiments and before that on Dr. Sabin himself and members of his family.

Its virtues, including delivery in syrup or a sugar cube instead of by injection, became accepted in the United States after the testing abroad. It was licensed in 1961 and eventually became the vaccine of choice in most parts of the world, although a few countries still use the Salk-type vaccines.

The Sabin vaccine received a temporary setback when public health officials reported that a few children, about one in a million inoculated, were developing polio because of the virus. Dr. Sabin, however, never admitted that his vaccine was responsible.

"He was so strong-willed he thought he could will it away," Dr. Joseph L. Melnick of the Baylor College of Medicine at Houston said yesterday from Geneva. Dr. Melnick described Dr. Sabin as "one of the world&aposs greatest virologists."

For Governments, A Straight-Talker

The development of the Sabin polio vaccine was the culmination of 20 years of research on the nature, transmission and epidemiology of the three closely related virus types that cause poliomyelitis, which was more frequently called infantile paralysis when Dr. Sabin was a young scientist. The disease was a dreaded cause of paralysis and death, especially in young people.

Dr. Sabin also was an adviser to the governments of the United States and other nations on important health issues.

A scholarly looking man whose hair turned white in middle age, he continued a full working and traveling schedule into his 70&aposs.

Scientists who knew Dr. Sabin well said he was eloquent and extremely difficult to defeat in a scientific argument. These talents apparently persisted all his life, as did a tendency to speak the truth as he saw it without diplomatic considerations.

In the swine flu episode of 1976, when the Federal Government feared an epidemic, he first supported but later denounced the Federal policy of vaccinating all adults against the flu virus, which bore a strong chemical resemblance to the virus that had caused the disastrous pandemic of 1918-1919.

Dr. Sabin made Federal officials unhappy by saying he doubted there was as much danger from the swine flu as the public was being led to believe. He argued that the vaccination campaign should await evidence that the virus was indeed reappearing in the population. As it turned out, the feared epidemic never did materialize and vaccination was followed by serious illness in several hundred people.

In 1980, at the age of 74, Dr. Sabin went to Brazil to help that country cope with polio outbreaks but soon found government doors closed to him because of his outspokenness.

In particular, he said the Brazilian Government had falsified data in the early 1970&aposs to give the World Health Organization, a United Nations agency, a falsely optimistic picture of polio eradication in that country. He estimated that in 1980 there was 10 times as much polio in Brazil as was being reported and that efficient vaccination efforts were being blocked by bureaucratic interference. Soon thereafter he was told by the Brazilian Government that his advice was no longer needed.

In the early years of his research on the polio virus, Dr. Sabin was credited with the first demonstration that it could grow in human nerve tissue outside the human body. Through research on monkeys he developed a method for determining how the polio virus entered the human body.

It had been widely thought that the polio virus entered the victims through the nose to the respiratory system. But Dr. Sabin proved that the virus first invaded the digestive tract and later attacked nerve tissue. He was also among the scientists who identified the three types of polio virus.

After Poland, A Quick Transition

Albert Bruce Sabin was born Aug. 26, 1906, in Bialystok, Poland, then a part of Imperial Russia. He and his family immigrated to the United States in 1921, at least partly to escape the persecution of Jews. He attended high school in Paterson, N.J., after taking a six-week cram course in English from two cousins.

After graduation from high school he first planned a career in dentistry because an uncle, a dentist, offered to finance his college education if he would enter that profession. Dr. Sabin said years afterward that he studied dentistry for three years and then "couldn&apost stand it any longer" because he had become captivated by the possibilities of medical research.

He graduated from New York University in 1928. With the aid of scholarships, fellowships and odd jobs, he attended the university&aposs medical school and, while there, found time to do research on pneumococcus bacterial infections.

He was awarded an M.D. degree in 1931. That summer, a polio epidemic in New York influenced his choice of a research career on polio and other infectious diseases of the human nervous system.

Before entering full-time research in that field, however, he trained in pathology, surgery and internal medicine at Bellevue Hospital, through 1933. He spent the next year in research at the Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine in London.

In 1935 he returned to New York to join the research staff of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, now Rockefeller University.

In 1939 Dr. Sabin moved to the University of Cincinnati and its Children&aposs Hospital Research Foundation to conduct research on viruses.

Wide Research As Army Officer

After the United States entered World War II, Dr. Sabin became a consultant to the Army on viral diseases. Later, as a lieutenant colonel in the Medical Corps, he studied diseases affecting American troops throughout the world.

He isolated the virus that caused sandfly fever, a nonfatal epidemic disease that was causing illness among troops in Africa. Later he showed that an ordinary mosquito repellent would provide protection against the infection by warding off the insects that carried the disease.

He helped develop a vaccine against dengue fever, a debilitating but usually nonfatal disease that was striking many troops in the South Pacific. He also studied the parasites that cause toxoplasmosis, as well as the viruses that cause encephalitis, inflammations of brain tissue.

Late in World War II, a vaccine he had developed against Japanese encephalitis virus was given to about 70,000 American troops preparing for the invasion of Japan. A decade after the war, Dr. Sabin was the first to identify a virus called echo 9 as a cause of human intestinal illness.

At the end of the war, Dr. Sabin returned to the University of Cincinnati to continue work on polio. He developed a live-virus vaccine that was first tested in 1954. By that time, however, the killed-virus polio vaccine developed by Dr. Salk had already been developed, tested and was being put into use.

Public health experts in the United States decided the Sabin vaccine should be given its first major trials abroad, so that people already protected by the Salk vaccine could not be accidentally included in the studies and thus confuse the results.

In this country, the Sabin vaccine was first used on a large scale in 1960 in Cincinnati, where it was given to 180,000 schoolchildren.

Two years later all three constituents of the vaccine, one against each of the three major polio virus types, were licensed by the United States Public Health Service.

Whereas the Salk vaccine had to be given by injection and required later booster shots to insure long-term immunity, the Sabin live-virus vaccine could be taken by mouth and provided lifetime protection against polio. Moreover, the harmless virus of the vaccine seemed to be "catching": It spread beyond the recipients to protect even some people who had not received the vaccine at all.

From Bitter Rival, A Word of Praise

Although the Salk vaccine continued to have adherents, the Sabin vaccine replaced it as the prime defense against polio in this country. A sharp rivalry between Dr. Salk and Dr. Sabin persisted thereafter.

Asked about the Salk vaccine at the age of 84, Dr. Sabin declared the killed-virus preparation to be "pure kitchen chemistry."

"Salk didn&apost discover anything," he said.

Dr. Salk, for his part, attributed such comments to professional jealousy. "Albert Sabin was out for me from the very beginning," he said. "I remember in Copenhagen in 1960, he said to me, just like that, that he was out to kill the killed vaccine."

But Dr. Salk issued a statement yesterday praising Dr. Sabin&aposs enduring contributions to the control of polio.

In 1970 Dr. Sabin became president of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel but stepped down in November 1972 because of a heart condition for which he had open heart surgery.

In the latter part of his career, Dr. Sabin&aposs interest in viruses led him into research on the relationships between human cancer and viruses. Although he thought at one time that he and co-workers had discovered a virus that caused several types of human cancer, he later concluded that the virus in question was not a factor in human malignant disease.

Dr. Sabin was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1951 and received numerous other honors, including the Bruce Memorial Award of the American College of Physicians in 1961, the Feltinelli Prize of the Accademia dei Lincei of Rome in 1964, the Lasker Clinical Science Award in 1965 and the United States National Medal of Science in 1971.

Throughout his long career he was noted for diligence, hard work and long hours as well as brilliance in research.

"A scientist who is also a human being cannot rest while knowledge which might be used to reduce suffering rests on the shelf," he once said.

Dr. Sabin was married to Sylvia Tregillus in 1935 she died in 1966. He married Jane Warner, but the marriage ended in divorce. In 1972, he married Heloisa Dunshee de Abranches.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by two daughters from his first marriage, Deborah Sabin of Yakima, Wash., and Amy Horn of Palo Alto, Calif., and three grandchildren.


Causes and symptoms of polio

Polio, also known as poliomyelitis, is caused by the poliovirus. According to the CDC, there are three types of wild polioviruses, Types 1, 2, and 3. However, Type 2 and Type 3 were declared to have been eradicated in 2019. Polio is considered to be a highly contagious disease, although it can only be spread amongst humans. According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, the poliovirus spreads through aerosols or droplets and enters through the mouth during person-to-person contact, or via fecal contamination of water, utensils, food, or hands.

Although as much as 95 percent of polio infections are asymptomatic, people are infectious even without displaying symptoms. Symptoms of a polio infection can include fever, vomiting, back and neck pain, and muscle weakness. Referred to as nonparalytic polio, this type of polio infection can last up to 10 days and most people are able to recover completely. There also exists a milder form, known as abortive polio, where symptoms are so mild that they may be mistaken for the flu. These types of polio account for around 4-8 percent of infections.

However, up to 2 percent of polio cases result in paralytic polio, which results in paralysis in the brainstem, spinal cord, or both. According to the WHO, among those with paralytic polio 5-10 percent die as a result of immobilized breathing muscles.


As the eradication of polio nears, a new crisis for global health looms

The words were electrifying. We were only a few years out from the era of unstoppable polio epidemics in the United States and elsewhere. At that time, no disease had ever been eradicated. But there before me was Albert Sabin, sipping his coffee, saying that if it had been done in one country, “we might be able to do it everywhere.”

For the next 30 years, Sabin pursued this possibility as single-mindedly as he had once pursued the vaccine itself. He traveled the world, conferring with governments and experts, and wrote paper after paper that meticulously explored the mechanisms by which polio might be defeated. Two elements, he said, were the keys to success: the use of the oral vaccine, and the need to administer it to an entire population at once.

In this 1959 photo, Dr. Albert Sabin (right), whose live polio vaccine was then being tested extensively throughout the world, is shown at Cincinnati’s Children’s Convalescent Hospital with Mark Stacey, 5, who had contracted paralytic polio a few months earlier. With them is Dr. Walter Langsam, president of the University of Cincinnati. Harvey Eugene Smith/AP

The obstacles, however, were enormous. The cost, the logistics, the army of workers needed to vaccinate millions of children at a time — who would ever take it on?

In 1979, the president of Rotary International, a global humanitarian service organization, called me at the National Institutes of Health, where I was then working. He wanted to know what large-scale humanitarian effort might be accomplished by an organization with, at that time, just under a million members in most of the world’s countries. My mind immediately flashed back to that morning in Miami, and I said, “Eradicate polio.”

Rotary committed to doing just that, going on to become a spearheading partner of what is today the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. With the support of national governments and using the technique of mass immunization, this initiative — now made up of Rotary, the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, UNICEF, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — has reduced the number of children paralyzed by wild poliovirus from 350,000 in 1988 to just 22 cases last year. We have every expectation that the number will soon drop to zero.

Through this extensive partnership, Sabin’s spark of breathtaking ambition flamed into a beacon of cooperation, professionalism, and hope. When its work is done, and the world is free of polio, the achievement will be a testament not only to the vision and determination of one man, but also to the ability of a world united in compassion to determine its own future.


Albert B. Sabin and the development of oral poliovaccine

There are many reasons for the modern interest in viral vaccines, but there is no doubt that the key role played by viral vaccines in public health is the major factor since other prophylactic or therapeutic anti-viral products simply do not exist. Viral vaccines have a long history that has been marked by successful events and by tragic accidents. Live viral vaccines are an extraordinary category of biologicals since, despite their reputed efficacy, they were developed by empirical experiments and patient epidemiological observation. From this point of view oral polio vaccine should be considered a 'miracle' since it became a major tool for public health in the 20th century, before we were able to understand the molecular basis of polio virus neurovirulence attenuation. The first evidence that polio virus can be attenuated was provided in the early 1940s by Max Theiler, but it was Hilary Koprowsky who demonstrated further in 1952, that a rodent adapted strain was safe and able to immunise a limited number of volunteers. Koprowsky studies were confirmed later during a mass field trial in Africa. However it is undeniable that the patient and systematic work of Albert B. Sabin was primordial in developing live oral attenuated poliovaccine. The excellence of Sabin's testing of poliovirus neurovirulence in the accurate studies that he developed, enabled him to select, after the cloning of viral populations by plaque assay, the best attenuated variants.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 250 WORDS)


Dr. Albert Sabin: A Closer Look

Portrait of Dr. Albert Sabin, 1953
National Library of Medicine #B022500

Dr. Albert Sabin was born today, August 26 in 1906 in Poland and is best known for developing the oral polio vaccine. This black and white portrait of Sabin, taken in 1953, was donated to the National Library of Medicine by the College of Medicine at the University of Cincinnati in 1955, where Sabin was head of Pediatric Research.

In the 1930s, the outbreak of polio, which led to paralysis or death, had reached epidemic proportions both in the United States and around the globe. The first inactive polio vaccine (IPV), which required an injection administered by a doctor, was created in 1954 by Dr. Jonas Salk. During the same time period, Sabin discovered that the polio virus attacked and multiplied in the intestines, as opposed to the respiratory tract as was previously believed. He began testing a new polio vaccine on humans, starting with his own family. In 1956, Sabin reported that he had developed an oral polio vaccination (OPV), taken either as a syrup or a pill, that worked in the intestines to block the virus from entering the bloodstream. Many believed that Salk’s vaccine had eradicated polio, so health officials in the United States were hesitant to support Sabin’s new vaccine. However, whereas Salk’s vaccine was effective in preventing most of the complications of polio, it did not prevent the initial intestinal infection. Even with Salk’s vaccine, people could carry the virus and spread it without showing any signs of the disease. In response to the lack of support for his vaccine in the United States, Sabin took it to the USSR in 1959 where it was administered to more than 100 million people with excellent results.

Following Sabin’s success in the USSR, American health officials were prompted to begin testing his oral vaccine. Sabin’s vaccination had many benefits it could be administered by volunteers instead of doctors, usually one dose of Sabin’s vaccine provided life-long immunity from the polio virus (furthermore, since it was a live-virus vaccine, immunity could be spread from person to person), it was less expensive, and provided better control over epidemic outbreaks of polio. In 1961, Sabin’s oral vaccine was approved by the U.S. Public Health Service and replaced Salk’s vaccine as the preferred inoculation in the United States. The last known case of polio in the United States was reported in 1979. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), OPV is no longer used in the United States, but is used in vaccination programs of some countries around the world. Since 2000, the only polio vaccine recommended and used in the United States is IPV because it is an inactivated or killed vaccine and cannot cause polio.

Later in his career, Sabin became president of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and became a Distinguished Research Professor of Biomedicine at the Medical University of South Carolina where his research focused on the link between virology and cancer, as well as the aerosol delivery of measles vaccination. He served as a full-time consultant to the U.S. National Cancer Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Sabin also held positions at various institutions including Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and the Fogarty Institute at the National Institutes of Health where he continued part-time until his health forced his full retirement in 1988. Dr. Albert Sabin passed away on March 3, 1993 of heart failure.

Sabin received the National Medal of Science in 1970 for his work up to and including the development of the oral polio vaccine. He also received the Laura McNulty is a recent graduate of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is currently working at the National Library of Medicine as a Pathways Student. Beginning September 2013, she will be working as a conservation intern at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, PA.

Ginny A. Roth is the Curator of Prints & Photographs in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.


Poliomyelitis vaccination results

In the decades that followed, widespread use of the polio vaccine finally began to stem the tide of this contagious disease. The World Health Organization would later launch a global poliovirus eradication program in the 80s.

Polio officially eradicated in the Americas (1994)

The Pan American Health Organization declared that wild poliovirus had been successfully eliminated in the Americas, thanks to extensive vaccination efforts. The World Health Organization proceeded to declare the Americas as the first region to achieve its goal of wiping out polio.

Salk polio vaccine reconsidered in the U.S. (1997)

Studies determined that since 1968, Sabin’s OPV vaccine had created 8 to 10 polio cases annually. The U.S. then chose to revise its immunization protocols to deliver only injection-based vaccinations (IPV) by the year 2000.

Poliomyelitis officially eradicated in Europe (2002)

The last reported case of polio on the European continent was a young Turkish boy in November 1998. In the summer of 2002, the World Health Organization declared that polio had also been eliminated in Europe.

Type 2 polio vaccine called into question (2016)

The global medical community switched from trivalent oral vaccines (covering types 1, 2, and 3) to a bivalent version (for types 1 and 3). This move helped curb vaccine-derived type 2 strains of polio, which had last been reported in 1999.


By: Iman Said, Archives & Rare Books Intern for 2014-2015

Hello again! The past few weeks, I have written about student life at UC and various aspects of campus that provide students with a well-rounded college experience. But UC is just one part of a huge community of Cincinnatians. Much of the work that is done on campus by our students, faculty, and staff have a significant impact on the entire city, and even the entire country. Being a student at UC makes it easy to forget that our CCM graduates go on to be Broadway stars, our MBA graduates are CEOs, and our medical students create new medicines and practices. These students succeed because of the outstanding faculty and staff who work for the university, many of whom actually have their own impact on the community. Continue reading Albert Sabin: An Incredible Cincinnatian


What happened when a million Nebraskans drank Polio Punch

In 1962 Nebraskans organized the largest mass vaccination campaign in the state’s history. An estimated 1 million Nebraskans drank polio vaccine at a series of “Sabin Oral Sunday” events that year.

But was the vaccine safe? Some Nebraskans—along with others across the US—were reported to have contracted polio soon after taking the vaccine. The US Public Health Service temporarily banned the vaccine for three months while it studied the situation. Lawsuits followed.

Do you remember the anti-vaccination movement of 1962? If you don’t, it’s because such a movement didn’t happen. But why not?

Photo: Two early-1950s March of Dimes "Fight Infantile Paralysis" posters designed by artist John Falter (of Falls City, Nebraska). (History Nebraska 10645-1197, 10645-4333)

Polio Season

For much of the twentieth century, the months of July, August, and September were known as “polio season.” The earliest known case of polio in the United States was reported in Vermont in 1894. New York City suffered the first major polio epidemic in 1916, resulting in 2,300 deaths. Epidemics grew worse as the years passed. The peak year in the US was 1952, with more than 57,000 cases.

Poliovirus causes no or mild symptoms in 95 percent of the people who carry it. Others experience flu-like symptoms. But 1 percent suffer “paralytic polio” with varying degrees of lasting paralysis, even death. Polio was known as “infantile paralysis” because most of its victims were children. But adults were also vulnerable. Future US president Franklin Roosevelt was 39 when the virus paralyzed him from the waist down in 1921.

Doctors had no vaccine and no effective treatment. Public officials quarantined homes and isolated patients—doing so even against a parent’s wishes. A child with polio would be hospitalized with no parental contact for 10 to 14 days, and with only limited visits for weeks afterward. All this added to public fear of the disease.

Photo: Onlookers gather at the 1947 Nebraska State Fair. But what medical marvel are they looking at.

. It is an "iron lung," which helped save the lives of patients so weakened by polio that they could not breathe on their own. A patient typically spent two weeks with all but their head encased in the cylinder while recovering. Oscillating negative pressure inside the chamber helped the patient inhale.

. History Nebraska has a 1950s iron lung from Bryan Hospital in Lincoln (in storage, not currently on display). (History Nebraska, RG2183-1947-904-3, 4 8172-18)

Dr. Jonas Salk led the team of medical researchers that developed the first polio vaccine. Large-scale vaccination began in 1955. Salk’s vaccine used a “killed virus” and was delivered by a series of injections.[1]

Salk was regarded as a medical hero, but the introduction of the polio vaccine came with tragedy. Despite safety testing, in 1955 some batches of vaccine accidentally contained live virus. One company, Cutter Laboratories, was linked to more than 250 cases of polio. The “Cutter Incident” led to greater government oversight of vaccine manufacturing.[2]

Photo: Nebraska clinical trial of the Salk polio vaccine, May 1954. From KOLN/KGIN-TV, Lincoln and Grand Island. (History Nebraska RG809-51)

Dr. Albert Sabin, meanwhile, was developing a different kind of polio vaccine. He doubted that a “killed virus” would provide lasting immunity. His vaccine used a live but weakened virus, and was delivered orally. Sabin argued that not needing injections would make it easier to vaccinate large numbers of people in less developed parts of the world. Salk’s vaccine was already greatly reducing polio, but not everyone was getting vaccinated. Sabin believed his oral vaccine would finish the disease off.

Because Salk’s vaccine was available first, Sabin found it difficult to get support for large-scale clinical trials in the US. His team began working with other countries, including the Soviet Union. The Soviets agreed to test the former US Army physician’s vaccine on millions of their children in what proved to be a successful 1959 trial. The US approved its own large-scale clinical trials the following year. Such was the fear of polio that it fostered international cooperation even at the height of the Cold War.

Starting in Cincinnati, where he lived, Sabin promoted city-wide vaccination events that became known as Sabin Oral Sundays (SOS). The idea was to vaccinate as much of the local population as possible and wipe out polio a city or a county at a time.[3]

SOS in Nebraska

Nebraska joined the SOS movement in the spring of 1962. More than 314,000 people turned out for the first event in Douglas and Sarpy counties on May 27. Sixty vaccination stations were set up around the Omaha metro area for people to register and drink the cherry-flavored syrup. Local TV coverage resembled the “telethons” popular at the time, with tote boards tallying numbers as they were phoned in from across the city. A small donation was requested but no one was turned away. A staggering 84.9 percent of the population drank the vaccine—the best one-day result of the nationwide SOS program so far.[4]

Above (and detail below): Full-page ad from Omaha World-Herald, June 24, 1962.

Below: Vaccination card from Lincoln SOS event. History Nebraska 13143-182.

But that was only the first step. Because three different strains of polio required separate vaccinations, participants returned in similarly large numbers for doses on June 24 and September 16.

Following Omaha’s first SOS, communities across Nebraska held their own SOS events that year. In all, about a million Nebraskans were vaccinated.[5]

But before it was over there were reports of trouble.

Is the vaccine safe?

In 1962 nine Nebraskans “developed an illness compatible with” polio within weeks of receiving the Type III vaccine. A US Public Health Service (USPHS) team said it believed that these and other similar cases nationwide were “directly related to the feeding of the polio virus vaccination.” In September the USPHS issued a temporary ban on the Type III vaccine while it investigated.[6]

On December 20 the Omaha World-Herald reported that the USPHS had confirmed 11 actual polio cases nationwide that occurred after taking the Type III vaccine. Eight of these involved people over age 30.[7]

The USPHS lifted the ban, advising that the vaccine should be “used for adults only with the full recognition of its very small risks.”[8] Citing fears of public opinion, the Iowa State Board of Health retained the Type III ban until February, but Nebraska officials went ahead with vaccination.[9] The wording of a January 6, 1963, World-Herald report is revealing: “A hassle developed nationwide when a few polio cases were linked to the taking” of the vaccine.[10]

In 1964, two Omaha residents filed lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies, alleging that they had contracted polio after the 1962 vaccinations. One woman said she became permanently crippled.[11]

I haven’t learned how these lawsuits were resolved, but what is clear is that news related to the Sabin and Salk vaccines remained overwhelmingly positive over the next few years, until polio vaccination joined existing vaccinations as a rite of childhood.

But the “hassle” of vaccination-induced polio was real, though the risk was very small. In 1999, a federal advisory panel recommended that the US use the Salk vaccine because it can’t accidentally cause polio.[12]

And yet the issue passed without either a large anti-vaccination outcry or a suppression of news about the risks associated with the Sabin vaccine. The risks were widely reported at the time. And then public concern faded. Why?

The anti-vax movement that wasn’t

We could talk about the higher levels of trust that existed in the US in the 1960s compared to today—higher trust in government, higher trust in medical professionals.[13] We could also talk about the lack of social media or even email, making it easier for mainstream media to shape the national conversation.

These things were probably factors, but something else seems more important:

“Medical Miracle: Polio Number Drops to 200,” read a World-Herald headline on May 24, 1964. “Ten years ago,” read the Associated Press report, “polio struck down 40 thousand Americans every year. This year, there will be only two hundred cases in a nation of 180 million persons… Medical scientists estimate that at least 212 thousand Americans have been spared from death or crippling by poliomyelitis (infantile paralysis) since 1955.”

The USPHS, meanwhile, had found only 11 cases of people contracting polio out of 15 million doses of vaccine. It wasn’t difficult for the public to see that the risk of vaccination was tiny compared to the risk of not being vaccinated.[14]

More importantly, these weren’t just abstract numbers for adults of the 1960s. They remembered well the “polio seasons” of the pre-vaccination days. They had seen for themselves what an epidemic looked like. They knew the fear.

“The virus is still alive”

What worried the USPHS was not open resistance so much as complacency. The agency warned repeatedly that children born from then on must be immunized, because “the virus is still alive, and until its elimination by universal vaccination there is a threat of resurgence.”[15]

Pockets of unvaccinated people remained. In 1965 an unvaccinated Bayard girl became the Nebraska’s first polio fatality since 1961. The state health director responded by ordering 7,000 doses of oral vaccine for a mass immunization of unprotected residents of Morrill and Scotts Bluff counties.[16]

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the US reported fewer than 1,000 new polio cases by 1962, and only seven by 1974. The US was polio-free by 1979. Worldwide, a further global vaccination effort reduced polio from more than 350,000 cases in 1988 to 22 reported cases in 2017. Despite the progress, the World Health Organization still warns that “as long as a single child remains infected with poliovirus, children in all countries are at risk of contracting the disease.”[17]

The same is true of other diseases. They can come back if vaccination rates decline. In 1963, even as US cities continued hosting SOS events, a new vaccine was being readied to attack another disease:

“How gratifying it will be to speak of measles in the past tense,” said a World-Herald article headlined “Victory Near Over Measles.” The article ran on November 29, 1963—more than 55 years ago. Measles, deemed eliminated in the US by 2000, is currently experiencing a resurgence due to falling vaccination rates. [18] Will polio make a similar comeback?

Thanks to History Nebraska’s Audio/Visual Curator Paul Eisloeffel for discovering this story when he digitized the KMTV news footage (which lacked a soundtrack) Josh Beeman edited the version of the video posted here.

[1] “Whatever Happened to Polio?” National Museum of American History, Behring Center (Smithsonian Institution). https://amhistory.si.edu/polio/index.htm

[2] “Historical Vaccine Safety Concerns,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Aug. 28, 2015. https://www.cdc.gov/vaccinesafety/concerns/concerns-history.html

[4] “Sabin: Omaha’s SOS Result Extraordinary,” Omaha World-Herald (hereafter, OWH), May 28, 1962.

[5] “Million Help Write Medical Story,” OWH, Jan. 6, 1963.

[6] “Polio, Sabin Dose Linked,” OWH, Nov. 5, 1962.

[7] “Sabin Type 3 Ban Is Lifted,” OWH, Dec. 20, 1962.

[8] “Sabin Type 3 Ban Is Lifted,” OWH, Dec. 20, 1962.

[9] “Iowa Retains Vaccine Ban,” OWH, Dec. 21, 1962 “Board Okays Vaccine Use,” OWH, Feb. 1, 1963.

[10] “Million Help Write Medical Story,” OWH, Jan. 6, 1963.

[11] “Polio Victims File Suit Against Chemical Firm,” Omaha Evening World-Herald, Dec. 11, 1964.

[12] “Jonas Salk and Albert Bruce Sabin.”

[14] “Sabin Type 3 Ban Is Lifted,” OWH, Dec. 20, 1962.

[15] “Medical Miracle: Polio Number Drops to 200,” OWH, May 24, 1964.

[16] “Bayard Girl Is First Polio Victim Since ’61 in Nebraska,” OWH, May 30, 1965.

[17] “Does polio still exist? Is it curable?” World Health Organization, updated March 2018. https://www.who.int/features/qa/07/en/

[18] “Victory Near Over Measles,” OWH, July 16, 1963 Emily Baumgaertner, “Political polarization has fueled measles outbreak,” Tribune News Service, Lincoln Journal Star, May 19, 2019.


Further Reading

Sabin's life and scientific achievements are treated in chapter 5 of Theodore Berland, The Scientific Life (1962) and in chapter 14 of Roger Rapoport, The Superdoctors (1975). The Salk-Sabin controversy is covered in Richard Carter, Breakthrough: The Saga of Jonas Salk (1966). The Miracle Finders by Donald Robinson and The Health Century by Edward Shorter are encouraged reading for learning of many other contributors to the world of virology. □


8. A rival vaccine supplanted Salk’s in the 1960s.

Once Sabin’s oral vaccine finally became available in 1962, it quickly supplanted Salk’s injected vaccine because it was cheaper to produce and easier to administer. Ultimately, both vaccines produced by the bitter rivals nearly eradicated the disease from the planet. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there were only 416 reported cases of polio worldwide in 2013, mostly confined to a handful of Asian and African countries. Since Sabin’s live-virus vaccine, which is responsible for about a dozen cases of polio each year, is seen as the final obstacle to eliminating the disease in most of the world, the WHO has urged polio-free countries to return to Salk’s killed-virus vaccine.


Watch the video: From The Vault: Dr. Albert Sabins oral polio vaccine helps eradicate the disease around the world


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