On This Day: Polio vaccine introduced to British public in bid to eradicate 20th century plague

Julian Gavaghan

MAY 1, 1956: The first ever polio vaccine was made available to the British public after a national immunisation programme began on this day in 1956.

Children aged between two and nine were injected with the serum in a bid to eradicate an incurable disease that crippled thousands, including TV’s Mary Berry.

The vaccine was developed in America by Dr Jonas Salk following a three-year trial and huge public fundraising programme.

A British Pathé newsreel shows the serum, which Dr Salk had first tested on his wife and three sons, being produced by Glaxo at its labs in Sefton Park, Merseyside.

The vaccine, which was not patented by its inventor because he wanted it to be provided cheaply to as many people as possible, was seen as a miracle.

Within a decade, it had helped to virtually eradicate a hitherto baffling spinal cord infection that killed a quarter of victims and left many more crippled or paralysed.

During the 1948 outbreak alone, 8,000 Britons caught poliomyelitis, which only shortly before was found to be spread by infected faeces and nasal secretions.


Among victims of that year’s epidemic was Berry, who spent 12 weeks in hospital, and was left with a permanently twisted spine, a weaker left hand and thinner left arm.

The 79-year-old Great British Bake Off judge, who was 12 at the time, was confined to a glass isolation room for a month.

Describing her ordeal in an interview with the Daily Mail last year, she said: ‘Alone and feeling terrible, the one thing I wanted was my mother.

















 

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‘But my parents had to stay on the other side of the glass, only able to smile and mouth words of reassurance.

‘It took all of my strength just to tilt my head so I could see them.

‘During their visits, I was in floods of tears. I just couldn’t understand why Mum wasn’t coming in to give me a cuddle, to talk to me and comfort me.


‘It must have been terribly upsetting for them.’

Other victims were incarcerated in iron lungs as polio had so badly affected them that they were unable to breathe unaided.

However, the U.S., where victim President Franklin D Roosevelt brought the disease global prominence, was hit hardest by polio. 









 

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Most worrying for Americans, the problem seemed to be getting worse during the post-war years while their society was otherwise enjoying record prosperity.

At its peak, 58,000 cases of polio were reported in 1952, with 3,145 people dying and 21,269 left with mild to disabling paralysis.

Wealthy parents, realising there was little they could do to protect their children, began raising money in a bid to look for a prevention or cure.


Working class families also contributed – with 100million Americans donating at least 10 cents to the March of Dimes fund.

It was this charity, headed by Basil O’Connor, that supported the work of Dr Salk at the University of Pittsburgh.

In July 1952, Salk began testing a vaccine made using a killed rather than live virus, which had proved deadly in previous experiments.









 

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It quickly had a positive effect and as word got around, 440,000 children were volunteered for testing, which was finally deemed successful in 1955.

The announcement that a ‘100 per cent protection’ vaccine was made on April 12, the tenth anniversary of Roosevelt’s death and was widely celebrated.

‘People observed moments of silence, rang bells, honked horns, blew factory whistles, fired salutes, kept their red lights red in brief periods of tribute, took the rest of the day off, closed their schools or convoked fervid assemblies therein, drank toasts, hugged children, attended church, smiled at strangers, and forgave enemies,’ wrote historian William O’Neill.


Within two years 100million Americans – two thirds of all its then population - had been given the vaccine and the disease was virtually eradicated.

However, a much smaller proportion of Britons were inoculated and polio persisted, with 707 acute cases and 79 deaths in 1961.







 

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But that year, Polish scientist Albert Sabin pioneered the more easily administered oral vaccine using a live strain of polio, which Britain switched to in 1962.

There have been no cases of the disease in the UK since 1982.

However, small outbreaks continue to affect parts of the developing world, most recently in war-torn Syria.