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From Polio Pioneer to COVID-19 Crusader: An Infectious Disease Doctor’s Reflection on Past and Present Vaccines

stephen gluckman

1952 was an epidemic year for polio, with 60,000 new cases and more than 3,000 deaths from the disease in the United States that year. Polio is a life-threatening disease that attacks the nervous and respiratory system, often resulting in paralysis, and in the 1950s children were the population most affected. However, a glimmer of hope for this epidemic was broadcasted on March 26, 1953. On a national radio show, Jonas Salk, MD, a medical researcher and virologist, announced the creation of a successfully tested polio vaccine, suggesting an end was in sight for this critical condition. And in 1954, clinical trials began on schoolchildren.

One of those children was Stephen Gluckman, MD, now the medical director of Penn Global Medicine and a professor of Infectious Diseases at the Perelman School of Medicine. For his participation as one of the 2 million children in the trial, Gluckman received a small piece of paper and a badge, scribed with the words “Polio Pioneer”— a memento of the occasion that his parents held onto, and only recently found by Gluckman.

Similarly, Gluckman now holds another card, recording both his vaccination dates for COVID-19. While received decades apart, both of these cards represent a time of fear and isolation that communities felt all over the world — and the hope for medical science to stop these diseases.

In this Q&A, Gluckman reflects on the parallel of these historical keepsakes and discusses his experiences as a recipient of the polio and COVID-19 vaccines.

polio pioneer badge

How did you become involved in the polio vaccine clinical trial?

Even though I was 7 years old, I was clearly aware of adults’ general anxiety about polio. In that time, it was a serious illness that could cause paralysis or death. Parents were cautious about kids playing together and swimming pools were closed down because of polio’s association with contaminated water. It affected everyone’s lives.

My school district was chosen to be in the Salk study. I remember my second grade class lined up, marched down to the nurse’s office, and stood outside the door. One at a time, we all went in and they took blood tests and gave us the shot. I got the placebo in the study, so I had to go back to get the vaccine when the trial ended.

Are there similarities between polio and COVID-19?

When I’m in the hospital, there’s definitely reverberation. What’s reminiscent about polio when thinking of COVID-19 is the main issue of breathing and being socially isolated. Hospital halls used to be lined with iron lungs for patients with polio, which would seal a patient in and push and pull air in and out of their lungs. You’re semi-helpless and you can’t really talk while you’re in it. While there are no iron lungs today, a patient with COVID-19 is kept in a room to contain the disease, and they might end up on a respirator.

However, the communication around polio and COVID-19 differs. There was no Internet or anything like that when I was a kid, so polio didn’t come the same way as it does now — I think it was less on people’s consciousness. For COVID-19, we get hourly reports, literally.

covid card

Was there any polio vaccine hesitancy, similar to what we’re seeing for the COVID-19 vaccines?

There wasn’t much suspicion about vaccines in those days, so there wasn’t any resistance among parents. There was some fear among the kids, but only with the needles. There were all these 7-year-olds lined up in the hall crying. I didn’t cry when I got the COVID-19 vaccine.

Also, this is a guess from the mind of a 7-year-old, but polio and the vaccine were not politicized. Polio was a common enemy. COVID-19 has become politicized which is adding greatly to the problem, at least in the United States. It’s a public health issue. People don’t wear masks because they think it’s a political statement. Refusing to wear a mask or get vaccinated is analogous to refusing to stop at stop signs. You wouldn’t drive past a stop sign because then you would put others in danger around you.

What does your participation in the polio vaccine clinical trial mean to you?

When I inherited a suitcase of items from my childhood that my parents collected when I was growing up, it was a surprise to see my “Polio Pioneer” badge, but a great surprise. The fact that I’m an infectious disease doctor, this historical piece is coveted by all my colleagues. I thought it was a bit strange at first that my parents held onto this, unless it reflected how important they thought this vaccine was at the time. Now, the status of polio is almost eradicated, which is amazing. Only two countries have ongoing polio and if we can get a vaccine to those areas, then polio will become extinct. There are not a lot of other candidates for diseases becoming extinct. The Salk study was one of the greatest vaccine trials there has ever been and it really was a miracle.

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