Dr. Peter Salk vaguely remembers the day he was vaccinated against polio in 1953. His father, Dr. Jonas Salk, made history by creating the polio vaccine at the University of Pittsburgh and inoculated his family as soon as he felt it was safe and effective.
“My father had brought home some vaccine (and) these terrifying pieces of equipment that neither I nor my brothers very much enjoyed seeing,” Salk told USA TODAY. “Big glass syringes and reusable needles that needed to be sterilized by boiling over the stove.”
Salk remembers getting the shot while standing alongside his brothers in the kitchen of their family home outside of Pittsburgh. Two weeks later, the boys visited their father at the D.T. Watson Home for Crippled Children to receive their second shot. This time, cameras were waiting for them.
“I remember hiding from injections. There was a big wastebasket next to the refrigerator and I chose one occasion to squat down behind that and try to make myself invisible,” Salk said. “Which, of course, didn’t work.”
Cases of polio peaked in the early 1950s, but it arrived every summer disabling an average of more than 35,000 people each year for decades, sometimes causing paralysis and death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Public officials closed swimming pools, movie theaters, amusement parks and other places associated with summer vacation.
Jonas Salk’s vaccine helped wipe polio from most of the world, something that many people hope will happen with the coronavirus vaccine. However, Peter Salk warns eradicating polio from the United States was a long and difficult journey, and he doesn’t expect eliminating COVID-19 will be any easier.
“It’s going to be a long road, just even getting enough vaccines out to people around the world. ... This virus does not respect borders,” he said. “It travels by airplane everywhere in the world and unless this virus can be contained everywhere, it’s going to continue to spread and be a problem.”
Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine was proven safe and effective in 1954 after the largest trial in the nation’s history, which included about 1.8 million child participants. However, it took the U.S. more than 20 years to eradicate polio. According to the CDC, no polio cases have originated in the U.S. since 1979.
About 3 million people, mostly frontline health care workers, have been vaccinated against the coronavirus after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said vaccines should be available for the general public as soon as late February or early March. However, most experts think vaccines won’t become widely available until late spring or early summer, assuming there are no production problems and the FDA authorizes two additional vaccines by sometime in February.