Vaccination programs are generally seen as a good thing for the human race. They are designed to protect individuals and eradicate disease from a population. Common childhood illnesses of the 1960s, such as measles and mumps, are relatively rare today with thanks to the MMR triple vaccination being offered to all suitable toddlers in the UK at twelve months old.

An article in the February edition of Laboratory News set me thinking. Written by Gareth Williams, it highlighted the rocky path in the development of the polio vaccine, and hinted at ulterior motives behind the public perception of ridding the world of the polio virus.

Polio invades the nervous system and can quickly cause total paralysis. In 1 in 200 cases, the paralysis is irreversible, and in 10% of these, death follows due to paralysis of the muscles controlling breathing. The virus passes from person to person via faecal-oral transmission. Since 1988, reported cases worldwide have decreased by over 99% and now polio only remains endemic in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria.

A vaccine for polio was first developed in the 1950s. In fact, two were developing at the same time by rival scientists. Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin independently worked on vaccinations for polio but rather than collaborate, they spent much of their time and effort in battle with each other. The reality appears to be that they were both pipped at the post by a Polish doctor, called Hilary Koprowski. The Koprowski vaccine was used in Russia, Poland and Africa, but wasn’t recognized in the USA.

Had all three scientists worked together in the first place, would polio have already been eradicated? I am going to have to read “Paralysed With Fear. The Story of Polio” to find out the full story.

Paralysed With Fear: the story of polio by Dr Gareth Williams (Palgrave Macmillan)