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1950s / Polio Vaccine Campaign 1954
From 1916 through 1952 the United States and Canada experienced horrible outbreaks of polio every few years. At one point, one out of every 5000 children was diagnosed with the dreaded disease. Polio is a virus which can be contracted through contacting bodily fluids from someone already infected. Early symptoms might include headaches and a runny nose. However, once the virus moves to the central nervous system, it can cause paralysis and even death. Sneezing and coughing accelerate the spread of polio. Therefore there was justifiable panic in communities when outbreaks occurred. Public gathering places would be declared off limits. (Swimming pools were typically the first places to be closed.) Municipal parks would be eerily vacant. Researchers later determined, somewhat ironically, that young children were most susceptible to polio because most North American births in the 20th century occurred in the sterile environs of hospitals. These newborns did not naturally come in contact with small amounts of the disease as did their ancestors who were born at home. Accordingly, their immune systems did not develop sufficient resistance to the virus. Researchers Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin worked separately to find a cure. Both believed that by exposing children to minute traces of the virus through immunizations their immune systems would build up a lifetime immunity to polio. Salk favored vaccine containing the dead polio virus while Sabin favored live-virus vaccine. In 1954, two years after the terrible 1952 outbreak, more than 1.83 million children volunteered to be "polio pioneers" and serve as guinea pigs for Salk's virus. As a reward for their bravery, each was given a lollipop, plus a button and certificate acknowledging participation in the program. None of the volunteers contracted polio.