The Story of Sabin vs. Salk

Author: Sue Chehrenegar
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On one Sunday in the early 1960s the doors to the cafeteria of a Junior High in Springfield, PA became unlocked, and long lines of residents waited for a chance to enter the large room, a room normally not used on a weekend. What had brought all those people to that one public school?

Those lines of people had arrived to benefit from the free distribution of sugar cube's, "sugar cubes" that contained the Sabin polio vaccine. Some of those in line that day, this writer for instance, had received a vaccination in the mid 1950s. That earlier injection had given those receiving it a dose of the Salk polio vaccine. The story of those two different vaccines reveals much about the progress of pharmaceutical research during the 1950s and the 1960s.

As Jonas Salk pursued his search for a live virus vaccine against polio, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis introduced a campaign called "March of Dimes". That campaign represented an effort to tap into public desire for eradication of polio, and to thus accumulate funds for support of Salk's research. That campaign asked the public to donate only coins. Yet that campaign enjoyed such success that the Foundation acquired more money for polio than the total then contributed to support research on either heart disease or cancer.

Salk grew the virus for his vaccine in monkey kidney cells. He used the new cell culture techniques that had been developed by John Enders, Thomas Weller and Frederick Robbins. Salk tested his vaccine using clinical trials with increasingly larger groups of test subjects. Finally on April 12, 1955 the press reported that Salk had achieved success, the creation of a killed-virus vaccine against polio.

The public exhibited varied reactions to the announcement of Salk's success. Some people observed a moment of silence, some rang bells, some honked horns; other individuals drank toasts, hugged children or attended special church services. The public jubilation, however, turned to public concern during the first month of the vaccine's use.

A mistake in production had allowed the release of some vaccine containing particles of the live virus. A special Surveillance Unit tracked down the contaminated lot and orchestrated its immediate withdrawal. Unfortunately, that withdrawal came only after 260 patients had received injections of the contaminated vaccine.

The production failure, although not a disaster, underlined the advantages of a live virus vaccine. Albert Sabin was then working on such a vaccine. The live-virus vaccine had one big disadvantage, it could not be used by people with compromised immune systems. Still, the live-virus vaccine, which was administered orally, had two big advantages, it provided a longer-lasting protection, and it prevented gastrointestinal reinfection, an occurrence that could create a latent reservoir of polio virus.

Even today, during efforts to provide residents of developing countries with a polio vaccine, health officials must chose between the Salk and the Sabin vaccine. Their concerns mirror those of health officials in the United States during the 50s and the 60s.

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