March of Dimes and Vaccine Advocacy

By Larsen, Dawn | American Journal of Health Education, January-February 2012 | Go to article overview

March of Dimes and Vaccine Advocacy


Larsen, Dawn, American Journal of Health Education


ABSTRACT

The polio vaccine became available in 1955, due almost entirely to the efforts of the March of Dimes. In 1921, Franklin Roosevelt gave a public face to polio and mounted a campaign to prevent it, establishing the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis in 1938. During the Depression, U.S. citizens were asked to contribute one dime. Entertainer Eddie Cantor suggested the name the March of Dimes, paraphrasing the popular newsreel "The March of Tirne." Jonas Salk advocated a killed-virus vaccine while Albert Sabin proposed a live-virus vaccine. Both competed for both recognition and funding from the March of Dimes. In 1955 Salk's vaccine was adopted, nationwide vaccination programs were implemented, and polio rates dropped by 80 percent. In 1961, Sabin's vaccine, endorsed by the American Medical Association, became the vaccine of choice. The World Health Assembly advocated polio eradication by the year 2000. By 2004 eradication efforts were threatened by allegations linking vaccines to chronic diseases. Immunization dropped and polio resurfaced in the U.S., Australia, Africa and Russia. Research linking vaccines to chronic disease was discredited, but vaccine opponents remain active. Health educators are well positioned to mitigate damage caused by the anti-vaccine movement and address barriers to immunization efforts.

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In 2008, The March of Dimes celebrated its 70th anniversary. During the 20th Century, few non-profit, volunteer organizations contributed more to the realm of public health or demonstrated more unwavering commitment to improving the health of babies and children. The March of Dimes has been instrumental in developing a screening test for PKU, (1-3) demonstrating the relationship between maternal alcohol consumption and birth defects, (4) developing neonatal intensive care units and surfactant therapy for premature babies? establishment of worksite prenatal health promotion programs, and identification of folic acid as a preventive for neural tube defects in babies. (6-8) Despite these significant achievements, the March of Dimes remains best known for its role in developing the polio vaccine. Beginning with the first recorded epidemic in 1916, the poorly understood polio virus crippled or killed tens of thousands in the first half of the 20th Century. The worst outbreak occurred in 1952, when 57,000 cases resulted in over 3,000 deaths and over 21,000 cases of paralysis. (9) The polio vaccine became available in 1955, ending widespread fear of the virus that has been ranked second among the top 10 public health disasters of the 20th Century. (10)

By the beginning of the 21th Century, however, a growing contingent of activists arguing against the use of vaccines was becoming extremely vocal. Public health advocates were compelled to defend immunization against critics who alleged possible links between vaccines and rapidly increasing autism rates. (11,12) By 2004, worldwide eradication attempts were threatened by unfounded allegations that vaccines contained, among other things, HIV and infertility agents. (13) Misperception about the benefits and risks of vaccines led to a significant polio epidemic in Africa, where the disease threatened to make a comeback. (14)

This conflict threatens one of the great milestones in public health, and should be of significant concern for health educators. Few people are aware of the challenges and obstacles faced by early attempts to control polio. The history of polio, and the parallel history of the March of Dimes, reveals the determination and drive of an unlikely team of advocates, researchers, politicians, public relations experts and educators. In illustrating the tenacity of the March of Dimes, the story of polio can provide important policy lessons for educators, advocates and policymakers who feel strongly about preserving the public's trust and confidence in the immunization policies of a strong public health system. …

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