Survivors to revisit the polio scare

Anyone over age 50 is likely to remember the terror of polio. Beaches were closed at the height of summer because the crippling, contagious disease seemed to spread through contact with water. Adults and children saw their lives become a nightmare of isolation wards, spinal taps, braces, orthopedic surgeries, social stigma, and confinement inside an iron lung sometimes for years just to breathe. Then, on April 12, 1955, the Salk polio vaccine was announced. Within a few years, polio was gone.

This April 9, 2005, Children's Hospital Boston, the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, and Harvard Medical School are holding a polio survivors' reunion and symposium in Boston. An expected 300-400 polio survivors, their families, and clinicians from around New England will gather from 2 to 5 p.m. to commemorate the vaccine and their own experience with the disease.

That experience still has resonance in today's era of emerging infectious diseases and bioterrorism fears. The medical community had to mobilize to cope with a sharp influx of polio patients. During Boston's worst epidemic, for example, Children's Hospital Boston dedicated virtually all wards to polio care. Emergency rooms overflowed, forcing doctors to triage patients in their cars, which lined up for blocks. Patients and beds sometimes waited outside until space could be cleared on the wards. Staff of all descriptions toiled overtime in record heat.

A vaccine was desperately needed, but before Salk could create one, there needed to be a practical way to grow poliovirus in quantity in the lab. In the late 1940s, the virus could only be grown in nerve tissue, which is difficult to maintain, or in live monkeys, a laborious and costly approach. Although Salk is famous for developing the polio vaccine, John Enders, Thomas Weller, and Frederick Robbins of Children's Hospital Boston were the first to culture poliovirus in a variety of tissues under primitive lab conditions -- earning them

Contact: Nancy Fliesler
Children's Hospital Boston

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