From polio pioneer to COVID-19 crusader

Infectious disease specialist Stephen Gluckman reflects on past and present vaccines.

1952 was an epidemic year for polio, with 60,000 new cases and more than 3,000 deaths from the disease in the United States that year. Polio is a life-threatening disease that attacks the nervous and respiratory system, often resulting in paralysis, and in the 1950s children were the population most affected. However, a glimmer of hope for this epidemic was broadcasted on March 26, 1953. On a national radio show, Jonas Salk, a medical researcher and virologist, announced the creation of a successfully tested polio vaccine, suggesting an end was in sight for this critical condition. And in 1954, clinical trials began on schoolchildren.

Stephen Gluckman
Stephen Gluckman, medical director of Penn Global Medicine and a professor of infectious diseases at the Perelman School of Medicine.

One of those children was Stephen Gluckman, now the medical director of Penn Global Medicine and a professor of infectious diseases at the Perelman School of Medicine. For his participation as one of the 2 million children in the trial, Gluckman received a small piece of paper and a badge, scribed with the words “Polio Pioneer”—a memento of the occasion that his parents held onto, and only recently found by Gluckman.

Similarly, Gluckman now holds another card, recording both his vaccination dates for COVID-19. While received decades apart, both of these cards represent a time of fear and isolation that communities felt all over the world—and the hope for medical science to stop these diseases.

Gluckman recalls the similarities between polio and COVID-19, mainly the inability to breathe and social isolation. However, the communication around polio and COVID-19 differs, and not just with modern communication channels. “There wasn’t much suspicion about vaccines in those days, so there wasn’t any resistance among parents,” says Gluckman. “There was some fear among the kids, but only with the needles. There were all these 7-year-olds lined up in the hall crying. I didn’t cry when I got the COVID-19 vaccine.

“Also, this is a guess from the mind of a 7-year-old, but polio and the vaccine were not politicized,” he says. “Polio was a common enemy. COVID-19 has become politicized which is adding greatly to the problem, at least in the United States. It’s a public health issue.”

This story is by Julie Wood. Read more at Penn Medicine News.