Ken's Project Blog

January 3, 2011

The March of Dimes

Filed under: Human Interest — Ken @ 9:37 am


On January 3rd, 1938 President Roosevelt and Dr. Basil O’Connor started the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis to battle Polio, the disease that afflicted not only President Roosevelt but countless thousands of others around the world at that time. What became known as “The March of Dimes” had a dual purpose of not only fighting the disease but also to lend a helping hand to those afflicted with the disease.

The NFIP closed in on a solution to polio thanks to not only countless medical researchers supported by March of Dimes grants, but also to energetic staffers like Elaine Whitelaw, who cultivated volunteers nationwide, and Charles Bynum, an African-American educator who recognized that polio care was also a civil rights issue. The greatest promise, however, came in a breakthrough at the University of Pittsburgh by a young physician whose name soon became a household word as a symbol of hope. A March of Dimes grantee, Jonas Salk, MD, pressed forward from a routine virus typing project to the creation of a vaccine that spelled the end of polio in a matter of years. Tested in a massive field trial in 1954 that involved 1.8 million schoolchildren known as “polio pioneers,” the Salk vaccine was licensed for use on April 12, 1955, the very day it was announced to the news media as “safe, effective, and potent.” Many had labored diligently to reveal how poliovirus functioned and how to stop it, but no accomplishment seemed as dramatic and instantly newsworthy as the Salk vaccine. From this point, polio declined rapidly from tens of thousands of new cases per year to a mere handful; a fearsome disease had been put to rest by the sustained efforts of millions of volunteers, coordinated by the NFIP.

Source: March of Dimes website

But Polio persists, with 1,315 cases in 2007, and 1,652 reported cases in 2008 despite the availability of the vaccine, why is this?

So, why haven’t we eradicated polio yet? Part of it is about polio’s specific characteristics as a virus. Multiple vaccinations are needed for full protection from the polio viruses.

The largest part of the challenge, however, is just the challenge of childhood vaccinations. It takes a lot of health system effort to provide childhood vaccinations, both in terms of cost and in terms of time and capacity.

In order to immunize a population, you need health care providers who know how to provide vaccinations. You need a sufficient supply of vaccines, syringes, and a distribution system to get them to the providers. You need a way to keep the vaccines cold, and therefore effective, until they are given. You need access to children – either by going to them, or having them come to a health facility. You also need parental permission for the vaccination.

All of those health system factors tie into larger structural concerns. Parental permission is dependent on faith in the health system, which depends on faith in government. A cold chain requires safe and reliable travel. Health care providers need to get paid. That’s a lot of points for failure.

It’s those points of failure that have kept us from eradicating polio

Source: Change.org website

Having effectively completed it’s original mission, finding a vaccine for Polio, the March of Dimes moved on to apply the same grass-roots efforts to help combat other infant illnesses. In 1958, Mr. O’Connor announced the organization would focus on birth defects prevention, and then by the 1970s, the March of Dimes focus on prevention of birth defects and infant mortality began to encompass the problems of premature birth and low birthweight as well.

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