AP file
Dr. Jonas Salk, seen here in his laboratory in 1955, developed the first vaccine for Poliomyelitis, known as polio. Polio, which causes paralysis and death, swept the United States from 1942-1953.
updated 4/27/2004 12:23:47 PM ET 2004-04-27T16:23:47

Fifty years on, graying adults smiled Monday as they recalled the experimental polio shots they got as second graders in America’s battle against the mysterious killer, polio.

On April 26, 1954, scientists delivered what was called “the shot felt around the world.” In the cafeteria of Franklin Sherman Elementary School in McLean, a young physician gave the first inoculation of a vaccine developed by Dr. Jonas Salk.

“I know now it was really something important,” said Dr. Richard Mulvaney, who helped vaccinate about 1.8 million children from 44 states. He was reunited Monday with men and women who were among those second graders 50 years ago.

'Polio Pioneers'
In the first half of the 20th century, polio was a scourge that killed and paralyzed thousands. Children and parents were horrified by the prospect of life in an “iron lung,” a metal ventilator where victims with collapsed respiratory systems lived, sometimes indefinitely.

AP file
Polio patients are lined up in "iron-lung" respirators at the emergency polio ward at Haynes Memorial Hospital in Boston in 1955. Children and parents were horrified by the prospect of life in an "iron lung," a metal coffin-like ventilator where victims with collapsed respiratory systems lived, sometimes indefinitely.
On Monday, Jackie French Lonergan posed next to an enlarged black-and-white photograph of herself at age 7 with sleeve rolled up, bracing for the needle. The untested vaccine was considered by many parents less of a risk than the uncertainty of no protection at all.

“Children died, and I had a little friend in the hospital who did die,” said Rita Bourgois, a polio survivor who fell ill at age 10, two days after her 12-year-old brother went to Children’s Hospital in Washington with the disease in 1954. When they left the hospital three months later, Bourgois said doctors told her they were the only polio victims to walk out of the hospital that year.

The 1954 field trial was the largest voluntary clinical trial ever. The children who took the series of three shots became known as “Polio Pioneers.” The trial was sponsored by the March of Dimes, a voluntary health agency founded in 1938 by President Franklin Roosevelt, who himself had been crippled by the disease in 1921 at age 39.

“My grandfather felt a special kinship with the victims of polio,” said Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, a March of Dimes board member. She said he was passionate about preventing the disease and ending the epidemic.

In 1955, the Salk formula was declared “safe, potent and effective.” A few years later, an oral vaccine developed by Dr. Albert Sabin from live polio virus was introduced. The last polio case in the United States was recorded in 1979.

The disease has been eradicated in every country except India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt, Niger and Nigeria, said Dr. Stephen L. Cochi of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC is marking National Infant Immunization Week through Saturday.

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