Hospital Investigator Authors Book on Polio Vaccine


During the early 1950s, polio, a virus that caused paralysis and death in about 1 percent of infected people, caused widespread panic. Polio epidemics paralyzed tens of thousands of children each year during the 1940s and 1950s, peaking in 1952 with about 58,000 cases. Scientists, public health officials and private foundations, particularly the March of Dimes, searched for a way to eradicate the disease. In 1955, a safe and effective polio vaccine developed by Jonas Salk promised to end the fear of polio.

Paul Offit, M.D., chief, Division of Infectious Diseases, wrote a critically acclaimed book that describes the controversy and skepticism surrounding Salk’s polio vaccine, and the lasting consequences of this controversy.

As Dr. Offit vividly describes in The Cutter Incident: How America’s First Polio Vaccine Led to the Growing Vaccine Crisis, public health officials and clinicians hailed the development of Salk’s polio vaccine 50 years ago as a triumph, as it promised an end to devastating polio epidemic that led to paralysis in thousands of children each year.

The victory was tarnished, however, when a number of polio cases occurred in infants and children who received the vaccine. By using clinical and epidemiologic information, public health officials attributed these cases of polio to problematic vaccine lots produced by Cutter Laboratories, one of five American producers of the original vaccine.

In his book, Dr. Offit provides a comprehensive account of the triumph of polio vaccine development and approval, the medical tragedy associated with the Cutter incident, the scientific and legal backlash and the incident’s continuing impact on the current vaccine crisis, based on interviews with public health officials, pharmaceutical company executives, attorneys, Cutter employees, victims of the vaccine and previously unavailable archives.

Specifically, he illustrates how public health officials made decisions using limited information during the Cutter tragedy, which was intensified by scientific skepticism about Salk’s vaccine. Some opponents of the vaccine suggested that the theories and methods used for the vaccine were flawed, but these accusations have been proven false.

Legal decisions following the Cutter tragedy created a precedent of liability for financial damages even in the absence of negligence. This decision, and subsequent court decisions that have expanded liability, continue to cause the shrinking number of vaccine manufacturers, high vaccine prices and insufficient vaccine supply.

Dr. Offit serves as a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention vaccine advisor and has given congressional testimony on the value of vaccines for children. This book presents powerful social commentary that calls for reevaluation of vaccine practices in the United States.