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The Face of
Polio Today




Fifty years ago, Dr. Jonas Salk (below) and his team helped administer the first polio vaccines. Today, armed guards in Somalia must accompany health workers on polio eradication campaigns.
© 2001 Sebastião Salgado/Amazonas Images/Contact Press Images.

The images, many of them heart-wrenching, show the ravages of a disease that most Americans don’t think about any more: polio.

While the often-crippling disease has been eradicated in the United States, other countries haven’t been as fortunate. Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado captures the face of polio today in his exhibit, End of Polio: A Global Effort to End a Disease, at Carnegie Museum of Natural History from March 5 through May 15.

It’s one of several events sponsored this spring by the University of Pittsburgh to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the development of the Salk vaccine. Dr. Jonas Salk and his team worked on the vaccine at the University between 1947 and 1955, and it was declared “safe, effective, and potent” on April 12, 1955.

Salgado, an internationally renowned photographer, spent much of 2001 and 2002 working on the photo project, which was sponsored by the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immuni-zations and the Global Polio Eradication Initiative—a partnership of the World Health Organization (WHO), Rotary International, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the United Nations Children’s Fund. His photographs tell stories of polio in the Democratic Republic of Congo, India, Pakistan, and Africa.

“The Salgado exhibit reminds us that while we may not remember polio in the U.S., in many parts of the world it remains endemic,” says Dr. Margaret McDonald, the University of Pittsburgh’s associate vice chancellor for Academic Affairs. According to the WHO, the number of new polio cases rose 51 percent in 2004, to 1,185. Most were in Africa, primarily Nigeria.

Another focus of the University’s anniversary celebration will be on the thousands of children and adults from the Pittsburgh region who were the first to receive the vaccine in Salk’s pilot studies. After those studies proved successful, Salk’s team organized the largest clinical trial ever, among 1.8 million children in 44 states.

Local residents who rolled up their sleeves for those pilot studies or for the early vaccine—as well as people who have suffered the crippling effects of the disease—are invited to a tribute on Sunday, April 10, in the Commons Room of the Cathedral of Learning. It was there, in 1957, that the entire University of Pittsburgh faculty, staff, and student body—20,000 in all—received their vaccines over four days, demonstrating that it would take everyone’s help to eradicate polio.

Salk’s son, Dr. Peter Salk, will be part of the community celebration, as will polio victim James Sarkett, whose polio strain was one of three used in the vaccine and Dr. Tenley Albright who, after overcoming polio, went on to be the first Ameri-can woman to win an Olympic gold medal in figure skating, will also participate. The following day, Pitt will sponsor a scientific symposium that explores the future of vaccine development.

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