Polio Vaccines at Herman Kiefer Hospital

Photograph courtesy of The Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University

1964Before there was a vaccine for paralytic polio, the fear of contracting it gripped the nation for much of the 20th century. In 1921, future president Franklin Delanor Roosevelt was diagnosed with the disease at 39, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. The peak year in 1952 witnessed almost 58,000 cases of polio in the United States, 21,000 of them the paralytic type. At its most severe, the disease atrophied breathing muscles, and patients, many of whom were schoolchildren, were placed in “iron lungs.” Others suffered damage to their limbs, necessitating crutches. The contagious disease, spread through stool and saliva, so terrified people that, even on scorching days, public swimming pools and beaches were nearly empty. Dr. Jonas Salk devised the first vaccine (IPV, or inactivated poliovirus vaccine), delivered by injection, in 1955. Then, in 1961, Dr. Albert Sabin created the OPV, or oral poliovirus vaccine, which was a weakened live vaccine. Children especially liked the oral version, not only because it didn’t involve a needle, but because the OPV was often administered in a sugar cube, sometimes flavored with cherry. This snaking line of people at the old Herman Kiefer Hospital in Detroit — now the Herman Kiefer Health Complex — wait for oral vaccines, which, in 1964, was the recommended treatment. Today, paralytic polio has been nearly eradicated, although the World Health Organization says the virus is still circulating in parts of Africa and Asia.

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