An article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette titled “Sixty years later, recalling the Jonas Salk polio ‘miracle’” written by Virginia Linn keeps the myth of the so-called miracle of the Salk polio vaccine alive and well. It also serves as a continuing testimony to the laziness (not to mention incompetence) of the mainstream media to do its historical homework.
Linn’s piece opens with, “Sixty years ago this coming Sunday (April 12), the Salk polio vaccine was declared ‘safe, effective and potent,’ an announcement cheered with the fervor of a national holiday. At the time, the dreaded disease was infecting more than 50,000 children in the United States a year, killing many and leaving some so paralyzed they could breathe only with the help of an iron lung.”
Yes, it’s true that before the Salk vaccine was introduced in 1955, more than 50,000 people in the US contracted polio in one year. In 1952, a total of 52,879 people got polio. But by 1955, the numbers had declined by 45%. Why? I can tell you why, but that’s another story (… although here’s a hint). In 1953, 35,592 contracted polio in the US. In 1954, it was 38,476. In 1955, it was 28,985.
So it’s a fact of history that the numbers dropped precipitously before the Salk vaccine was widely distributed. Now, let’s start with 1954 when medical researcher and virologist Salk actually came up with his inactivated injectable polio vaccine. Get ready… this one’s a real doozy. That same year, the government redefined polio. Yep, they can do that. According to Dr. Bernard Greenberg, head of the Department of Biostatistics of the University of North Carolina School of Public Health:
“In order to qualify for classification as paralytic poliomyelitis, the patient had to exhibit paralytic symptoms for at least 60 days after the onset of the disease. Prior to 1954, the patient had to exhibit paralytic symptoms for only 24 hours. Laboratory confirmation and the presence of residual paralysis were not required. After 1954, residual paralysis was determined 10 to 20 days and again 50 to 70 days after the onset of the disease. This change in definition meant that in 1955 we started reporting a new disease, namely, paralytic poliomyelitis with a longer lasting paralysis.”
In other words, under the new definition of polio, thousands of cases which would have previously been counted as polio would no longer be counted as polio. The change in the definition laid the groundwork for creating the impression that the Salk vaccine was effective. It was kind of like a golfer being given a stroke handicap, or when you spot someone points in a basketball game.
In 1955, the government began a nationwide mass vaccination campaign using the Salk vaccine. From 1957 to 1958, the number of polio cases (despite the new, stricter definition) spiked upward by 50% because the vaccine itself induced paralysis. From 1958 to 1959, polio cases increased by 80%. Afterward, polio began to decline, probably because the bulk of the vaccinations had already been given during the second half of the 1950s… and because of the new, stricter definition. In 1960, there were only 3,190 cases of polio, compared to 8,425 in 1959.
Remember Captain Kirk’s explanation of how he beat the no-win battle simulation known as the Kobayashi Maru? … “I changed the rules.” Remember Dr. McCoy’s response? … “He cheated.”
Just imagine how much higher the numbers would have been in 1957-1959 had the government not cleverly changed the rules in midstream. Of course, by then Jonas Salk had already been on the cover of TIME magazine and was an international “hero.” There were good reasons that polio dramatically declined in the US, but Mr. Salk and his vaccine? Sorry, no. In fact, polio declined despite the Salk vaccine. What a weird twist of history.