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Published: Monday, 4/25/2005

Banishing polio

FIFTY years ago this month, on April 12, 1955, an international news conference was held in Ann Arbor, Mich., to announce that clinical trials had succeeded and a safe, effective vaccine had been developed to prevent poliomyelitis, one of 20th century America's most dreaded diseases.

It was a triumphant moment in science and medicine, although actually eradicating polio in the United States would take nearly 25 more years.

Today, the crippling disease may have disappeared as a health menace in this country, but some survivors of that era continue to suffer from late-appearing post-polio maladies. And polio still claims victims by the hundreds in six Asian and African nations, where ignorance and superstition impede aggressive efforts against it by the World Health Organization and other groups.

Nonetheless, the intense post-World War II research program that came up with the polio cure and the wave of 10 million vaccinations that followed here and abroad still stand as monuments to the importance of public health measures and what can be achieved when a nation is galvanized against a disease.

The greatest heroes of this inspiring story are Jonas Salk, the physician credited with developing the vaccine, and Thomas Francis, the epidemiologist who carried out the clinical trial, which involved nearly 2 million children ages 6 to 9.

Only Americans of a certain age can recall the sense of elation that accompanied the 1955 announcement, which came after years of fear in which children with wasted limbs, crutches, and iron lungs weighed heavily on the American psyche.

Polio then was known as infantile paralysis, although adults also contracted it; perhaps the most famous was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose political career spanned four terms in the White House despite the disease.

In 1938, FDR founded the National Infantile Paralysis Foundation, later to become the famous March of Dimes. The announcement of a cure came on the 10th anniversary of his death.

Whether the effort against polio could be matched today is questionable, although not for any lack of so-far incurable scourges: cancer, HIV/AIDS, Alzheimer's disease, multiple sclerosis, and many others.

Indeed, the problem could be that there are so many research targets, each with its own set of avid supporters and eloquent spokesmen. The polio trial of the mid-1950s cost $7.5 million; it would cost $3 billion today, "roughly the entire market for vaccines in the U.S.," according to one expert.

The potential to alleviate untold human suffering is pitted now against the cost of medical research and technology, which seems to grow faster than the ability of public and private institutions to cope.

Even so, the American people should not shrink from the challenge of funding the next great cure for disease, whatever it may be. In banishing polio, Salk and Francis proved a half-century ago that the odds against success are not nearly as daunting as they may seem.

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