Learning from the past: What the polio epidemic can teach us about COVID-19

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Celebrating Seniors

(WTAJ) — Sometimes we have to look at the past to understand the present, and in this case, change the future.

The world celebrated the polio vaccine 65 years ago. The deadly virus had crippled children around the world and paralyzed parents with fear.

“I had polio when I was 5-and-a-half in September of 1955,” Dr. Daniel Wilson, polio survivor and historian, said. “Some lost both legs, some lost both arms, some lost their ability to breathe and others were very mildly affected.”

Polio seemed to come around every summer. Parents avoided things like playgrounds, swimming pools, beaches, and movie theaters. Feelings of uncertainty kept them all empty.

People didn’t seem to feel relief until April 12, 1955 when Dr. Jonas Salk developed a polio vaccine. He spent years researching at the University of Pittsburgh. 

“The thing about my father is that he just thought very broadly,” Dr. Peter Salk, Jonas Salk’s son and president of the Jonas Salk Legacy Foundation, said. “He just had deep concerns about humanity and its future.”

Dr. Jonas Salk, along with the help from people who raised money for the vaccine through the March of Dimes, were praised for saving the children of America.

“It was a remarkable moment,” Dr. Peter Salk explained. “It was a remarkable period and it just illustrates what the people of this country, what the people of the world can do when they put their mind to it.”

The polio vaccine helped put the University of Pittsburgh on the map and the program continues to learn from the past. 

“If you were really to sum up Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh does vaccines,” Dr. Paul Duprex, director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Vaccine Research, said. “Pittsburgh has a phenomenal track record in contributing to that arena.”

Dr. Duprex and his team are now doing extensive testing to come up with a vaccine to fight COVID-19.

“I want us to be players,” Dr. Duprex told us. “I want us to be contributors. I want us to be creative and innovative. I want us to work together and together is a really important word.”

There’s no way to tell when a successful coronavirus vaccine will be ready, but just maybe history will repeat itself and it will be discovered at the University of Pittsburgh.

“Not only one vaccine that made a difference, a dramatic difference in the world, but a second one, that would be amazing,” Dr. Peter Salk said.

Polio and the coronavirus are very different in many ways, but years later we still share the same fears and researchers still continue their race for a vaccine in hopes they too can rewrite history.

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