Electron Micrograph Of The Poliovirus

Why polio is making a comeback

Experts warn that new cases of the deadly disease, long gone from most of the world, are just the tip of the iceberg. Here’s what went wrong—and how we can eradicate polio once and for all.

Electron micrograph of the poliovirus, an RNA virus that is a species of enterovirus.
Photograph by BSIP, UIG/Getty Images

The world seemed to stop on April 12, 1955, when officials at the University of Michigan School of Public Health announced that Jonas Salk had developed a vaccine that protected against polio.

As the news was broadcast across the country, Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, remembers that businesses and schools closed so that Americans could celebrate, and churches and synagogues held special prayer services. His own mother cried at the news, relieved that her children would finally be safe from the disease that was known to paralyze its victims, leaving them unable to walk or even breathe.

“This was a major event, which tells you how scared people were of polio—and for good reason. If it paralyzed your ability to breathe, you were well aware of what was happening,” Offit says. Many patients stricken by polio were forced to rely on an iron lung for years.

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