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Polio vaccine marks 50th anniversary

From the "Wolf Blitzer Reports" staff

Wolf Blitzer Reports

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- When polio was a scourge, it most frequently struck very young children, and today the vast majority of polio survivors are middle-aged or older. That's the direct result of a breakthrough announced 50 years ago Tuesday.

On April 12, 1955, it was announced that Dr. Jonas Salk had developed a polio vaccine.

It's hard for younger Americans to grasp the fear that polio engendered during the first half of 20th century.

Most polio patients -- people like former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee suffered only temporary symptoms. One out of every 200 suffered irreversible paralysis, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Sometimes the paralysis spread to the breathing muscles, forcing polio patients into iron lungs -- huge mechanical cylinders that did the breathing for them.

There were nearly 60,000 cases of polio in the United States in 1952, and more than 3,000 deaths.

In communities where outbreaks occurred, swimming pools and movie houses were closed. Anything was done to prevent the disease from spreading.

Looking back on that era, one expert describes polio as the AIDS of its day.

The last big outbreak in the United States was in the Boston area.

Thousands of cases were reported in Massachusetts the summer of 1955, the same year the vaccine was approved.

After that, there was a steady decline.

As a result of Salk's vaccine, and later an oral vaccine developed by Dr. Albert Sabin, polio had all but disappeared from the United States by 1979, and scientists turned their attention to eradicating polio worldwide.

That goal has proved more elusive.

"Certainly in areas where sanitation and overall health conditions are optimal, like the United States, it wasn't necessary to really get such high coverage levels. Probably we were able to eradicate polio there with coverage in only 80 to 90 percent. In areas like India where polio is so easy to transmit, we feel we need to get probably close to 97 per cent of kids immunized," says Dr. Brent Burkholder of the World Health Organization.

There were 1,263 confirmed cases of polio last year around the world, including some cases in countries previously declared polio-free.

In most places, however, polio is a fading memory. It's frequently discussed only in past-tense, and it's no longer a word that haunts parents of young children.

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