Home Health News 'It's going to be a long road': His father developed the polio vaccine. This is what he thinks about COVID-19. – USA TODAY

'It's going to be a long road': His father developed the polio vaccine. This is what he thinks about COVID-19. – USA TODAY

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Adrianna Rodriguez

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COVID vaccine: Salk’s son talks polio vaccine, future of COVID-19 cure

Dr. Peter Salk was one of the first children to receive his father’s vaccine in 1953. Here’s what he thinks could happen with the COVID-19 vaccines.

Staff video, STAFF VIDEO

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.

Although the vaccine hadn’t undergone any trials yet, Salk was among one of the first children to ever receive the vaccine when he was 9 years old.

“My father had brought home some vaccine (and) these terrifying pieces of equipment that neither I, nor my brothers, very much enjoyed seeing,” he 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 pastimes that naturally came with summer vacation. 

The highly infectious disease spreads through contact with infected feces, which often happened when children didn’t wash their hands correctly, according to the University of Rochester Medical Center. 

Jonas Salk’s vaccine helped wipe polio from most of the world, something that many people hope will happen with the coronavirus vaccine. However, 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.

Salk is a doctor and a part-time professor of infectious diseases at the University of Pittsburgh, where his father developed the polio vaccine. He also heads the Jonas Salk Legacy Foundation. 

“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-BionNTech and Moderna.

Federal officials expect 20 million doses to be manufactured and available for shipping by early January, another 30 million doses by the end of that month, and 50 million more by the end of February.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said vaccines should become 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.

Logistics aside, another hurdle that will continue to take time to overcome is vaccine hesitancy, Salk said.

In a recent USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll of 1,000 registered voters, 46% say they will take the vaccine as soon as they can. Meanwhile, 32% say they will wait for others to get the shots before they do so themselves.

Two-thirds of Democrats, 67%, are willing to take the vaccine as soon as possible. The percentage of Republicans ready to take the vaccine is a stitch lower than the percentage who say they would never take it, 35% compared with 36%.

But vaccine hesitancy is not new to America, Salk said. According to a Gallup Poll from 1954, when the field trial began, only 53% of Americans said they thought the vaccine would work.

“So even back then, given the degree to which people were frightened about polio and wanting a vaccine,” there was still hesitancy, Salk said. “I was surprised to see that.”

Salk’s father attempted to get ahead of this setback by vaccinating his family and coworkers to instill a level of confidence before expanding clinical trials to the greater Pittsburgh area, and then later, the rest of the nation. (Government oversight laws wouldn’t permit this today.)

The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis – now called the March for Dimes – also enlisted the help of some of the most famous celebrities at the time such as Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, Marilyn Monroe, Louis Armstrong, Grace Kelly and even Elvis Presley.

The U.S. government has begun to partake in a similar campaign for the coronavirus vaccine with some high-profile figures choosing to get publicly vaccinated such as Vice President Mike Pence, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci and President-elect Joe Biden.  

While the U.S. is far from eliminating COVID-19 like polio, Salk is impressed with the coronavirus vaccines and hopeful for the future.

“Even with polio vaccines, it’s been a very complex road that we’ve traveled,” he said. “This is still early in the game and we’ve got to keep a close eye on all of the people who were vaccinated … (but) we’re on a good track and the results are extremely promising.”

Follow Adrianna Rodriguez on Twitter: @AdriannaUSAT. 

Health and patient safety coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Masimo Foundation for Ethics, Innovation and Competition in Healthcare. The Masimo Foundation does not provide editorial input.

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