From polio to the COVID vaccine, IDM's Peter Salk sees great progress


NPR's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED - Peter Salk was just 9 when he got that shot in 1953 at the family home outside Pittsburgh. At that time, polio terrorized the country every summer. In the worst single year, 1952, nearly 60,000 children were infected. Many were paralyzed, and more than 3,000 died. Frightened parents kept their children away from swimming pools, movie theaters, and other public places.

The vaccine helped eradicate polio, made his father world-famous, and shaped Peter Salk's own life—he also became a doctor of infectious diseases. In a recent phone chat with Salk, he was very upbeat about the COVID vaccine. "I was bowled over when the first news came out about the Pfizer, BioNTech results and being somewhere on the order of 95 percent effective," he said. "I just had a really strong emotional reaction that I totally had not anticipated."

He's following the vaccine news closely and has been hugely impressed by the development of a vaccine in less than a year. There could still be hiccups, he said, but none that can't be solved. "In my mind, so far, so good," he said.

Dr. Salk is a bit concerned about the number of people who are reluctant, or outright opposed, to getting the vaccine. But he believes those numbers will shrink as people see the benefits. And, he said, this "vaccine hesitancy" is nothing new. "I was surprised when I first learned a few months ago about a Gallup poll in 1954 that indicated that about half the population did not want the polio vaccine," he said. That was the year before the U.S. government authorized nationwide use. In the end, most everyone received it.

"My wife [Ellen] and I have been extremely careful during this whole period," he said. "I'm probably going to continue to do social distancing and wear masks and take the precautions that I've been taking really until this thing is practically gone." 

Dr. Salk was at the front of the line when he got the polio vaccine as a kid. And he's eager to get the new vaccine. But at age 76, and in good health overall, he said he's content to wait his turn. "We're going to be somewhere down the line" when it comes to the vaccine, he said. "As far as I'm concerned, that's fine with me. I think it's really important to prioritize the limited supply of vaccine." 

As a nation, he predicts it could take until the end of 2021 before life returns to normal for the country as a whole. Until then, he'll be playing it safe. "I'm not ready to throw away the mask," he said.

Listen to full interview

Photo - Dr. Jonas E. Salk, who discovered the polio vaccine, reads with his wife and three boys in Ann Arbor, Mich., on April 11, 1955. The boys were among the first vaccinated during testing. The family was photographed the night before an announcement the vaccine was effective. Pictured from left are Jonathan, 5; Donna Salk; Peter, 11; Salk; and Darrell, 8. (AP)


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