Poliomyelitis is a peculiarly nasty, highly contagious disease of the central nervous system that all too often leaves its victims permanently disabled with withered limbs. Polio epidemics swept through postwar America with alarming frequency, growing more virulent every year. An epidemic of 1952 killed over 3,000 people and left more than 21,000 with varying degrees of paralysis. So when medical researcher Jonas Salk developed a viable vaccine, he was hailed as a savior.
There followed the largest medical experiment in history, involving 1,800,000 children in a rigorous double-blind trial. On April 12 1955 the vaccine was hailed a success: it was deemed safe and effective. The public health authorities immediately licensed several pharmaceutical companies to produce the vaccine in bulk so they could carry out a mass immunization program to rid America of this latter-day plague. Among the chosen companies was Cutter Laboratories of Berkeley, California. A terrible mishap in their laboratory led to what is known as the Cutter incident.
Cutter manufactured 120,000 doses of vaccine in which the polio virus had not been deactivated properly. In two out of eight batches produced at the laboratory, some of the polio virus had survived the formaldehyde treatment designed to kill it. It was one of the worst disasters in the history of the US pharmaceutical industry. Cutter was sued and, when the case came to court in 1958, although the firm was cleared of negligence it was ordered to pay damages for breach of warranty – having claimed that the vaccine was safe when it manifestly wasn’t. The company never again produced polio vaccine and in the 1970s was taken over by German pharmaceutical giant Bayer, the third largest pharmaceutical company in the world.
When was the Cutter Incident: 1955
Where was the Cutter Incident: California, Idaho, New Mexico and Arizona, USA
What was the Cutter Incident death toll: Of 164 people who developed paralysis in response to the vaccine, ten died; 40,000 suffered a milder polio that, fortunately, did not affect their central nervous systems
You should know: Famous people who were crippled by polio include us President F D Roosevelt and Ian Dury of the Blockheads – a 1970s British punk rock band. Today polio is virtually non-existent in the developed world and is only endemic in four countries: India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria. Worldwide, there were 350,000 cases in 1998, but by 2007 the number had been reduced to 1,310.