Day for remembering
At the time of the announcement, government was not involved in public health, Foege said. Once Francis declared the Salk vaccine effective, public demand for it was great, but there were no regulations or assured resources to guide its production and distribution. After considerable public pressure following the polio trials, then-president Dwight D. Eisenhower reversed his previous position that government had no business in the health arena, Foege said.
"Because the public became involved, vaccines went that week from the protection of individuals to a social good," Foege said.
This led to what Foege called an interruption of measles transmission, an expansion of the geographic scope of public health efforts, and the socialization of immunizations. He said the shift in philosophy paved the way 10 years later in 1965 for development of a vaccine to eradicate smallpox worldwidean effort led by the United States.
Dr. Howard Markel, the George E. Wantz Professor of the History of Medicine, professor of pediatrics and communicable diseases, and director of the Center for the History of Medicine, said it was fitting for the University to celebrate Francis' role in the eradication of polio, since the history bookslike the media in 1955focused more on Salk's discovery of the vaccine.
"Perhaps the greatest benefit of reflecting on the past is the opportunity to adjust one's understanding of the events and human interactions," Markel said. "History would be well served by not only commemorating Jonas Salk's monumental achievement but by restoring Tommy Francis' contributions back into view."
Markel described Francis' work as the "critical, unglamorous task" of coordinating some 150,000 volunteers at 15,000 schools, with the cooperation of 44 of 48 state departments of health, and then tabulating all of the data without the benefit of a computer.
Others at the 50th anniversary celebration also credited the many polio pioneers, children who received the vaccine or a placebo during the trials.
"The world is healthier today because of you," School of Public Health Dean Noreen Clark said.
"Many of you here today weren't even born in 1955, so you may not really appreciate the fear that gripped the nation," Clark said, recalling her own childhood of closed swimming areas and adults talking about polio in hushed voices when she entered a room.
"This is a day of celebration that begins with a flood of memories for each of us who has a reason to remember," Board of Regents Chair Rebecca McGowan said during welcome remarks.
McGowan told about her husband's uncle and her own uncle who both suffered from polio. The latter contracted the disease after his first year at Harvard and was paralyzed from the neck down. McGowan recalls being enthralled by the iron lung and with watching her uncle's nurse lower him into a "swimming pool filled with hardware and warm salt water" from the ocean.
"I don't remember being frightened myself by this life-altering scourge of my youth," she said. When it came time for her to take the vaccine, McGowan recalls thinking, "Was this really necessary?"
Polio survivor Sunny Roller, an educator and researcher at the University, told the audience that while the disease is gone from this country and efforts are underway to eradicate it in other parts of the world, the effects linger for some of the 20 million survivors worldwide. Roller, who contracted the disease at age 4, is one of half-million survivors to experience recurring symptoms in what has been diagnosed as Post-Poliomyelitis Syndrome.
"Now we are having to fight the disease again," Roller said. "As we celebrate annihilation of the disease, much has to be done. Polio survivors still have needs."
With polio still infecting people in more than a dozen countries of North Africa, the Middle East and southern Asia, experts used the anniversary celebration as a time to call attention to it and other diseases still affecting the world.
"Let's also remember the vital health concerns facing us today, and commit ourselves to resolve them," Clark said. "One message to take away from here: we cannot take our health or the public health system that protects it for granted."