Eradicating Polio

  • Medicine & Health
  • 1952

Polio is one of the most wounding viruses in history, and reached pandemic proportions in the early twentieth century. In America at that time it killed more people every year than any other communicable disease. Thousands of others were left living on iron lungs or hobbling about in leg braces.

For years, the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research had funded basic investigations into the virological underpinnings of the malady, including hosting the work of Albert Sabin from 1935 onward. Millions of people all over the country donated money to the March of Dimes—formally known as the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis—to wage battle against the disease. The foundation’s annual

budget soared from $3 million in 1940 to more than $50 million in 1953. That year, the foundation provided 25 times more funding for polio than the NIH. Its money went to science fellowships in virology, to direct research, to public information efforts, and to support for stricken families. Among many other things, the foundation funded the lab where the polio virus was first grown in non-neural tissue.

Eventually, this combination of rich-man’s endowment with mass philanthropy—along with the timely action of a small private foundation—put a dagger in polio’s heart. In 1948, Dr. Jonas Salk won a $35,000 grant from the Sarah Scaife Foundation that allowed him to equip a modern virus laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh to investigate the disease. He also received support from the March of Dimes and its millions of small donors, as did the parallel vaccine work of Albert Sabin. Two years later Scaife added to its initial risk capital with a follow-up grant to Salk.

In 1952, a particularly nasty polio epidemic broke out—more than 60,000 cases were registered in the U.S., and 3,000 people died. That same year, Salk announced a medical breakthrough. He had bravely immunized himself and his family with an experimental vaccine that worked. The Salk vaccine, the world’s first polio blocker, was soon deemed safe, thanks to field trials paid for by the March of Dimes, and went into production for use around the world in 1955. March funds were also responsible for distribution of free vaccine to many thousands of children.

Today, polio has nearly been eradicated across the globe. It remains endemic only in Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. And other philanthropies have taken up the cudgel to drive the disease to a final extinction. In 1985, when there were still close to 400,000 international cases of polio every year, the Rotary International Foundation pledged $120 million to battle the affliction overseas, ultimately donating a billion dollars to the fight. In 2011, the Gates Foundation made complete eradication of polio one of its top priorities. India—which just a few years prior to benefitting from a Gates-led mobilization was described as the “most tenacious reservoir” of the paralyzing virus, with half the world’s cases—recently celebrated its first year ever without a single case. The worldwide total was down to less than 250 cases in 2012, with the noose tightening.

Meanwhile, the March of Dimes, having effectively put itself out of work by beating polio, completely shifted its focus to premature birth and the prevention of birth defects.