Polio Victory Remembered as March of Dimes Marks 50th Anniversary of Salk Vaccine Field Trials

April 26, 2004

Fifty years ago today, thousands of parents drove their school-age children to designated sites across the country for immunizations of an experimental vaccine that they hoped would stop, once and for all, the raging polio epidemic that was leaving young Americans paralyzed and sometimes dead. Organized on the grass-roots level by the March of Dimes, this was the largest voluntary clinical field trial ever undertaken. One year later, the Salk vaccine was declared "safe, potent and effective" and polio was virtually eliminated from North America and, hopefully, from the world by 2005.

"This is what we as Americans can accomplish when we band together," said Dr. Jennifer L. Howse, president, March of Dimes, in remarks made at the Franklin Sherman Elementary School in McLean, Va., the first site where the inoculations were offered in 1954. Some 1.8 million children, known as Polio Pioneers, in grades one, two and three in 44 states from Maine to California eventually took part in the three-inoculation sequence over the next year; some 4,000 children alone at Franklin Sherman participated in the trials.

"Volunteer support put the threat of polio behind us in 1954, just as volunteer support today is critical in the fight to address premature birth and infant mortality in this country," said Dr. Howse, referring to the foundation's current five-year, $75 million campaign to raise awareness of premature birth as a public health issue, fund research to find its causes, and ultimately prevent babies from being born too soon. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently announced the rate of infant mortality is up for the first time since 1958, and cited prematurity which affects over 470,000 births each year as a major cause of the rise.

The March of Dimes, formerly known as the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, funded Dr. Jonas Salk's groundbreaking work on the Salk polio vaccine and then, through its volunteers and health networks, organized the vaccination clinics, record keeping, parents' meetings, blood samplings, stand-by transportation, and make-up clinics for absentees at each of the clinical trial sites.

These ceremonies today also marked the CDC's National Infant Immunization Week (April 25-May 1), drawing attention to the importance of immunizing infants against 12 vaccine-preventable diseases by the age of two with the theme, "Love Them. Protect Them. Immunize Them."

"Immunization has been cited as one of the ten greatest public health achievements of the 20th century. Millions of children have been vaccinated, and millions of cases of disease, disability and death have been prevented," Dr. Cochi added.

Aventis Pasteur is a major supporter of the Salk Vaccine 50th Anniversary events.

On site today with Dr. Howse were: Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, granddaughter of March of Dimes founder President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, March of Dimes National Chair of the Salk Vaccine 50th Anniversary, and a member of the March of Dimes national Board of Trustees; Anita Perry, First Lady of Texas, March of Dimes National Chair for Childhood Immunization; and Dr. Steve Cochi, Acting Director of the CDC's National Immunization Program. The March of Dimes will distribute one million immunization reminder brochures through its chapters in the next year. The brochure was produced with support from the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and AT&T.

Today's anniversary celebration was also marked by the launch of the new book "Images of America: March of Dimes," featuring hundreds of historic photos from the Salk vaccine field trials to celebrities, such as Elvis Presley, Louis Armstrong, Marilyn Monroe, and Lucille Ball, who supported the March of Dimes during the polio years. More information about the book and March of Dimes Polio Pioneers can be found at marchofdimes.org/polio.