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Heroes of Progress, Pt. 5: Jonas Salk

Blog Post | Vaccination

Heroes of Progress, Pt. 5: Jonas Salk

Introducing the pioneer of the polio vaccine, Jonas Salk.

Today is the fifth installment of a new series of articles by HumanProgress.org titled, The Heroes of Progress. This bi-weekly column provides a short introduction to unsung heroes who have made an extraordinary contribution to the wellbeing of humanity. You can find the 4th part of this series here.

Our fifth Hero of Progress is Jonas Salk, the man who pioneered the world’s first effective polio vaccine.

Polio is a highly infectious viral disease that is most often transmitted by drinking water that has been contaminated with the feces of someone carrying the virus. The virus spreads easily in regions with poor sanitation. The symptoms include: fever, fatigue, headache, vomiting, stiffness and pain in the limbs. Most infected patients recover. In one out of two-hundred cases, the virus attacks the nervous system, leading to irreversible paralysis. Of those paralyzed, between 5 and 10 percent die when their breathing muscles become immobilized.

Polio has a relatively long incubation period – it can spread for many months without being detected – making it extremely difficult to monitor. According to Max Roser from Oxford University, “Up to the 19th century, populations experienced only relatively small outbreaks [of polio]. This changed around the beginning of the 20th century. Major epidemics occurred in Norway and Sweden around 1905 and later also in the United States.”

The first major outbreak of polio happened in the United States in 1916, when the disease infected 27,000 people and killed more than 7,000 people. The second major outbreak of polio in 20th century America happened in the 1950s. It is here Jonas Salk enters our story.

Jonas Edward Salk was born on October 28, 1914, in New York. Salk became passionate about biochemistry and bacteriology during his time at the New York University School of Medicine. After he graduated in 1939, he started working at the prestigious Mount Sinai Hospital. Salk’s focus shifted to researching polio vaccinations in 1948, when he was head-hunted to work at the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis – an organization that President Franklin D. Roosevelt, himself a polio sufferer, helped to set up.

After a large outbreak of polio across the United States in 1952, donations began pouring in to the foundation and in the spring of 1953, Salk put forward a promising anti-polio vaccine. The foundation quickly began trials on 1.83 million children across the United States. These children became known as the “polio pioneers.” Salk’s foundation received donations from two-thirds of the American population and a poll even suggested that more Americans knew about these field trails than knew the then-president’s full name (Dwight David Eisenhower).

On April 12, 1955, Salk’s supervisor, Thomas Francis, announced that Salk’s vaccine was safe and effective in preventing polio. Just two hours later, the U.S. Public Health Service issued a production license for the vaccine and a national immunization program began.

Shortly thereafter, Dr. Albert Sabin, a Polish American medical researcher working at the National Institutes of Health, introduced a polio vaccine that could be administered orally, thereby making vaccination efforts less expensive as trained health workers weren’t needed to administer injections. From a record 58,000 cases in 1952, the United States was declared polio free in 1979.

In 1988, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) was founded to administer the vaccine worldwide. When the GPEI began its efforts, polio paralyzed 10 children for life every 15 minutes, across 125 countries. Since 1988, more than 2.5 billion children have been immunized and incidents of polio infections have fallen by more than 99.99 percent. That is, they fell from 350,000 annual cases, to just 22 new cases across 3 countries in 2017. Next year, Africa is due to be declared free of polio – that is, if no new cases are found in Nigeria, which is the last country in the region to report new polio infections.

Following his discovery of the vaccine, Salk received dozens of awards, a presidential citation, four honorary degrees, half a dozen foreign decorations, and letters from thousands of thankful fellow citizens. In 1963, Salk established the Jonas Salk Institute for Biological Studies – a world-class research facility that focuses on molecular biology and genetics, neurosciences, and plant biology. Salk devoted his later years to researching a vaccine for HIV/AIDS. He died on June 23rd, 1995.

Salk’s work has saved hundreds of millions of people from crippling paralysis, and millions from death. Thanks to his vaccine, a disease that has plagued humanity since pharaonic Egypt is almost completely eradicated, and within a few years, the disease will (hopefully) be consigned to history. It is for this reason Jonas Salk deserves to be our fifth Hero of Progress.

Nature | Vaccination

How Cancer Vaccines Could Keep Tumors from Coming Back

“Angela Evatt lay face down under anaesthesia as surgeons removed a malignant mole from her back and a lymph node from her left armpit. The purpose of the operation was not only to excise the cancerous tissue from her body, but also to begin the process of crafting a personalized vaccine that would train Evatt’s immune system to attack any tumour cells left behind.

The vaccine uses messenger RNA (mRNA), carefully constructed to encode the unique mutant proteins, known as neoantigens, that are found on the surface of Evatt’s melanoma skin cancer cells…

As is typical of individual experiences in clinical trials, determining the precise impact of the vaccine on Evatt’s recovery is difficult. ‘It’s impossible to know,’ she says. ‘I’m just happy to be cancer-free.’ However, the trial that Evatt participated in is yielding promising data. According to the latest number-crunch from the 157-person study, the combination of vaccine and checkpoint inhibitor reduces the risk of disease recurrence by nearly 50% compared with treatment with the inhibitor alone. The latest analysis also indicates that the vaccine contributes to lifespan extension.”

From Nature.

The Economist | Vaccination

New Fronts Are Opening in the War against Malaria

“When a mosquito infected with malaria bites a person, it injects a few dozen sporozoites into the bloodstream. These long, sprightly forms of the parasitic protozoan reach the liver within an hour; there the parasite transforms and multiplies, causing infection and sometimes death. Stop the parasite early, when the sporozoites are few in number, and disease is averted.

That is the premise of both new vaccines, which create antibodies that attach to sporozoites of the parasite Plasmodium falciparum, responsible for almost all of the deaths globally. The first to arrive was RTS,S which was developed in 1987 by GSK, a British company, and recommended by the WHO in 2021. Combining it with antimalarial drugs in places with high seasonal transmission of the disease reduced malaria episodes and deaths in young children by nearly two-thirds, compared with jabs or antimalarial drugs alone. Adding bed nets probably raised protection to more than 90%.”

From The Economist.

The Guardian | Vaccination

Melanoma Jab Trial Results “Extremely Impressive”

“The world’s first personalised mRNA cancer vaccine for melanoma halves the risk of patients dying or the disease returning, according to trial results that doctors described as ‘extremely impressive.’

Melanoma affects more than 150,000 people a year globally, according to 2020 figures from World Cancer Research Fund International.

Patients who received the vaccine after having a stage 3 or 4 melanoma removed had a 49% lower risk of dying or the disease recurring after three years, data presented at the world’s largest cancer conference showed.”

From The Guardian.

Gavi | Vaccination

Newest Malaria Vaccine Shipment Marks Child Survival Milestone

“UNICEF delivered over 43,000 doses of the R21/Matrix-M malaria vaccine by air to Bangui, Central African Republic, today, with more than 120,000 doses to follow in the next days. It is the first country to receive the R21 malaria vaccine for use in routine childhood immunization, marking another step forward in preventing the disease and saving children’s lives…

The R21 and RTS,S vaccines are proven safe and effective in preventing malaria in children. The RTS,S vaccine was delivered to more than 2 million children in Ghana, Kenya, and Malawi in a four-year pilot programme that demonstrated a 13 per cent reduction in all-cause mortality.”

From Gavi.