5 Things You Didn't Know About The Polio Vaccine

On this day in 1954, a group of children from Arsenal Elementary School in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, received the first injections of the new polio vaccine. Here are 5 things you didn't know about the polio vaccine...


Salk Tested The Vaccine on Himself And His Family. Salk tested the vaccine on himself and his family. After successfully inoculating thousands of monkeys, Salk began the risky step of testing the vaccine on humans in 1952. In addition to administering the vaccine to children at two Pittsburgh-area institutions, Salk injected himself, his wife and his three sons in his kitchen after boiling the needles and syringes on his stovetop. Salk announced the success of the initial human tests to a national radio audience on March 26, 1953.

Salk Did Not Patent His Vaccine. On April 12, 1955, the day the Salk vaccine was declared “safe, effective and potent,” legendary CBS newsman Edward R. Morrow interviewed its creator and asked who owned the patent. “Well, the people, I would say... There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” said Salk. Lawyers for the foundation had investigated the possibility of patenting the vaccine but did not pursue it, in part because of Salk’s reluctance.


A Tainted Batch of The Salk Vaccine Killed 11 People This happened in 1955 when a batch of the inactivated-strain vaccines was contaminated with live polio virus due to human error. 11 people died; 200 had become infected with polio as a result of the tainted batch. Although the United States surgeon general ordered all inoculations temporarily halted, Americans continued to vaccinate themselves and their children. Outside of the “Cutter Incident,” not a single case of polio attributed to the Salk vaccine was ever contracted in the United States.


The U.S. Is Now Considered Polio-Free. The CDC says the U.S. has been considered polio-free since 1979, thanks to those early mass vaccinations and continuing childhood vaccination requirements. However, polio has not been eradicated worldwide yet, with complications from the oral vaccine eyed as a potential cause. Right now the CDC states that the biggest threat to the U.S. in terms of polio reappearing is travel, with unvaccinated or ill people potentially carrying the pathogens back into the general public here.

Travelers Might Need a Booster Shot. As with any vaccine, the immune response to the polio vaccine can potentially fade with time. Sometimes this results in immunity falling below acceptable levels; this is why you need tetanus boosters and why some adults need measles boosters even though they were vaccinated as children. Technically, the polio vaccines you received as a child should be effective for your entire life. But if you travel to certain regions of Asia or Africa, where polio cases still occur, the CDC recommends that you get a one-time polio vaccine booster to ensure that you are fully protected.