Not long after Henrietta’s death, planning began for a HeLa factory—a massive operation that would grow to produce trillions of HeLa cells each week. It was built for one reason: to stop polio.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, pg. 93

Polio is a disease caused by viral infection of the central nervous system, leading to muscle paralysis. It used to be known as infantile paralysis, but now it is largely eradicated by vaccination.

A doctor gives polio drops to a young child.

Causes, Incidence, and Risk Factors

Poliomyelitis is a disease caused by infection with the poliovirus. The virus spreads by direct person-to-person contact, by contact with infected mucus or phlegm from the nose or mouth, or by contact with infected feces.

The virus enters through the mouth and nose, multiplies in the throat and intestinal tract, and then is absorbed and spread through the blood and lymph system. The time from being infected with the virus to developing symptoms of disease (incubation) ranges from 5 - 35 days (average 7 - 14 days).

Risks include:

• Lack of immunization against polio and then exposure to polio

• Travel to an area that has experienced a polio outbreak

In areas where there is an outbreak, those most likely to get the disease include children, pregnant women, and the elderly. The disease is more common in the summer and fall.

Between 1840 and the 1950s, polio was a worldwide epidemic. Since the development of polio vaccines, the incidence of the disease has been greatly reduced. Polio has been wiped out in a number of countries. There have been very few cases of polio in the Western hemisphere since the late 1970s.

Children in the United States are now routinely vaccinated against the disease. Outbreaks still occur in the developed world, usually in groups of people who have not been vaccinated. Polio often occurs after someone travels to a region where the disease is common. Thanks to a massive, global, vaccination campaign over the past 20 years, polio exists only in a few countries in Africa and Asia.

Polio Treatment at Tuskegee

Prior to becoming President, Franklin Roosevelt had established the Georgia Warm Springs polio rehabilitation center which maintained a White’s only policy of admission. There was an assumption that Polio was only a White disease. In 1941, the Tuskegee Infantile Paralysis Center opened to train Black doctors and physical therapists.

Links and Resources

  • Salk Polio Vaccine Conquered Terrifying Disease (NPR) April 12, 2005.
    Fifty years ago, on April 12, 1955, the world heard one of the most eagerly anticipated announcements in medical history: Dr. Jonas Salk's polio vaccine worked. The vaccine turned a disease that once horrified America into a memory.

  • Polio Insurance, 1951 (Lancaster Eagle) October 30, 2009.
    There was something of an epidemic of poliomyelitis, or polio for short, in the early 1950's, but it is an old disease; both my parents had mild cases around World War I. In its most severe form it could paralyze or deform the spine, legs or lungs. Nobody knew how the virus was transmitted; public swimming pools came under suspicion for a time, and September was known to be the worst month of the 'polio season.'

  • Medicine: Polio 1951 (TIME) July 16, 1951.
    Will there be a polio epidemic in 1951? It is still too early to tell. In the last week of June, 341 new cases were reported, up 60% over the week before. So far this year, cases are running close behind those for 1950, an epidemic year.


  • Jonas Salk and the Polio Vaccine (Britannica on YouTube)
    Archival footage showing children afflicted with polio, Jonas Salk giving injections, an immunization centre, and vials of vaccine being produced.