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As the March of Dimes gears up for its annual WalkAmerica fund-raiser, its officials are looking back on a string of milestones that have saved many thousands of lives.

Meanwhile, with grants to fund university research and support for clinics aimed at preventing birth defects, the March continues to battle ailments that strike children.The most spectacular of its past successes was the announcement, 40 years ago this week, that researcher Dr. Jonas Salk had developed a safe and effective vaccine against polio.

For years, waves of polio had swept across the country in yearly epidemics, striking 50,000 in 1952 alone. It killed and paralyzed ruthlessly.

During 1954, nearly 2 million American schoolchildren participated in the field trials of the vaccine as "polio pioneers." The trials were of the Salk vaccine, which had to be injected. The research was sponsored by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis.

Contributions were sought for the project, with the foundation sponsoring fund-raisers like chuckwagon breakfasts. During a "March of Dimes," volunteers would go door to door collecting money for research and to pay for therapy, wheelchairs, iron lungs and braces for people who were stricken with polio.

On April 12, 1955, the announcement "summarized the (Salk) vaccine as being `safe, potent and effective,' " said Dick Leavitt, director of science information for the March of Dimes' national office in White Plains, N.Y.

With the success of the Salk vaccine and the later Sabine vaccine (an oral inoculation), polio was clearly on its way out. At that time, the foundation faced a crisis, and discussed disbanding.

However, consultants and foundation activists felt that the group was so effective that instead of disbanding, it should "turn its attention to problems in addition to and other than polio. And we rather soon settled on birth defects," Leavitt said in a Deseret News interview.

The group changed its name to the March of Dimes, in honor of its earlier mobilizations. To avoid confusion, the yearly march became known as the WalkAmerica.

The March of Dimes' milestones since the early 1950s include the development of a test to screen newborns for a type of mental retardation called phenylketonuria (PKU), which can be prevented by regulating the diet of susceptible infants; the Sabin vaccine; the first successful bone marrow transplant to treat birth defects; location of a gene that causes leukemia; and many other achievements.

Dr. August Jung, director of the Newborn Intensive Care Center, recalled that the March of Dimes was instrumental in helping the center buy infant ventilators and transport devices. The center serves babies born at LDS, Primary and University hospitals.

Over the years the center has cared for close to 20,000 babies, and 3,000 to 5,000 of them them were helped by the new infant ventilators. The center is going full-blast, helping about 1,000 babies per year.

Today, the battle against birth defects and other ailments of newborns remains the March of Dimes' main focus.

Projects range from studies of genetic defects to parenting education programs that educate moms-to-be about safe prenatal care.

Gary C. Swensen, team walk recruiter for the March of Dimes in Salt Lake City, said that from 1989 through 1993, the group contributed $682,695 for research at the University of Utah.

During the present fiscal year, March of Dimes grants in Utah included:

- $62,029 for a study about cystic fibrosis and an effort to prevent chronic lung injury after premature birth.

- A birth defects registry, recording information about fetuses and infants in Utah born with birth defects, in an effort to find clusters of defects. That might point to some outside cause.

- A program of home vitiations for pregnant teens. With this, "they are hoping to reduce the number of high-risk pregnancies," she said.

- Prenatal education for Latino women without documentation.

- A program helping with treatment for substance abuse, targeting women of childbearing years.


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26 marches in Utah planned for April 29

Victory came 40 years ago in the struggle to develop a polio vaccine, but the March of Dimes is still carrying on its medical crusade.

Now its volunteers continue to work and walk to overcome birth defects and illness caused by premature birth.

In Utah, the organization originally started in the 1930s to combat polio is contributing about $140,000 a year to genetics and lung injury researchers, plus more than $40,000 to community and government programs like education about the dangers of substance abuse by pregnant women.

All of that costs money, and that's the point of the yearly March of Dimes. On April 29, Utah will field 26 "WalkAmerica" marches throughout the state, says Gary Swensen, team walk recruiter in Salt Lake City.

In the weeks before the march, each volunteer scours his home neighborhood for contributions. At one time, the amount was based on pledges of money per mile walked, but now it's a flat contribution. "From the early comments and registrations we're starting to receive, we're anticipating in the Sugarhouse walk we'll be getting 3,000 or more" volunteers, Swensen added. The march that takes off from Sugarhouse Park will be the state's largest, with the rest of the walks adding about the same number total as the Sugarhouse march.

"Our goal is to try to raise about $280,000," Swensen said. Anyone interested in helping should contact the March of Dimes at 363-5500.