Polio was never as lethal as described by the media, not even at its zenith in the 40’s and 50’s. Depending on who you consult, between 72% and 95% of polio cases are asymptomatic, which means you were unaware that you even had polio. Ten times more children died in accidents and three times as many died of cancer, but the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis made sure that polio had enhanced media coverage. They not only portrayed polio as a monster, but a monster that could be easily vanquished. Using the latest techniques in advertising and fund raising resulted in huge donations to achieve this goal and in turn resulted in a rush to produce the vaccine. The National Foundation’s crusade to eliminate polio had created a huge public demand for the vaccine and now safety was taking a back seat. David Oshinsky and George Littlefield, authors of ‘Polio, an American Story’ found that “…during the 1954 trials it had taken an average of four weeks for each lot of polio vaccine to be deemed safe for public use, in 1955 it took less than a day.”
Albert Sabin (who went on to develop the Oral Polio Vaccine in 1961) felt that licensing of the Salk vaccine had been done with speed, not safety as the dominant concern. When he read the Francis report about the new Salk vaccine, he found that during the vaccine trials in 1954 there had been reports of at least 10 cases of paralytic polio in the first month. Yet the report still declared – “The vaccine works. It is safe, effective, and potent.”
The vaccines were triple tested for safety by the NIH, by Salk’s laboratory and by the companies themselves. When Dr Bernice Eddy (who also detected the SV40 virus) tested the vaccines on monkeys, they became paralysed. She informed her superiors that the infected lots came from Cutter laboratories, and showed them photos of the monkeys. Her concerns were swept aside, the monkeys disposed of, and the vaccines released onto an unsuspecting public.
The Cutter incident was caused by the laboratory’s inability to inactivate the polio virus, which should have come as no surprise as it was known that all of the six companies selected by Salk to produce the vaccine for the 1954 trials had trouble inactivating the live virus. Cutter Laboratories knew that about one third of the vaccine lots produced for commercial use contained live virus and they discarded these lots without informing the NIH.
When reports of paralysis in vaccinated children started to roll in a mere two weeks after the vaccine had been licensed, Cutter was asked to recall the doses by Surgeon General Leonard Scheele. The press release from Scheele stated that the recall “..does not imply that any correlation exists between the vaccine and the occurrence of poliomyelitis.”
There was a halt put on all further inoculations until all the vaccine manufacturers had been scrutinized. Even Eisenhower speculated that due to the demand for vaccine, scientists may have tried to “short cut a little bit” on safety tests.
In the end it was ascertained that the Cutter Laboratory vaccine was responsible for 40,000 cases of polio, which paralysed 200 children, and killed 10.