The dreadful disease, polio had, by then, killed millions and left many permanently disabled.
Finally, in 1957, a Polish-American medical researcher - Albert Sabin - developed the oral polio vaccine, which within its first two years of application, had saved nearly 500,000 deaths and five million cases. Despite an endless stream of controversial debates surrounding the ethical issues of his research, Dr Sabin’s life-saving vaccine has illuminated the hope of eradicating polio from the world.
His experiments with rabbits, rodents and monkeys had caused a stir among animal rights activists. He believed that these failed attempts were absolutely crucial to the development of vaccines for polio. Without it, the world would still be suffering and waiting for a miracle vaccine.
A timely response to the crippling diseaseDuring his posting at the Children's Hospital Research Foundation in Cincinnati, Ohio, his groundbreaking research proved that polio viruses not only grew in nerve tissues, but that they lived in the small intestines. This discovery indicated that polio might be vulnerable to a vaccine taken orally.
Sabin's work on a polio vaccine was interrupted by World War II (1939-1945). Resuming after the war, his research spurred the development of the oral live polio vaccine, in collaboration with Russian scientists during the Cold War.
Sabin and his research associates first swallowed the live avirulent viruses themselves before they experimented on other human subjects. Tests were carried out on hundreds of prison inmates over two years (1955-1957), with no reports of harmful effects.
Following the acceptance from foreign virologists, especially those from the Soviet Union, the vaccine was first tested widely in Russia, Latvia, Estonia, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, and East Germany between the years 1957 to 1959. By the end of 1959, it had reached Sweden, England, Singapore, and the United States.
In the meantime, Dr Jonas Salk had developed a rival polio vaccine in 1954 and he carried out tests among American school children. However, it had been accidentally contaminated with some live virulent polio viruses and thus caused death or severe illness to hundreds of school children. His intention was to create an injectable vaccine using a killed form of the virus, but the efficacy was short-lived, and lasted less than a year.
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Vaccine gained widespread acceptance by American medical communityThe results of Sabin’s vaccine were spectacular as it was easily administered orally and effective over a prolonged period. Moreover, the vaccine was free of dangerous viruses.
Soon Sabin became a household name, and the live virus vaccine gained worldwide recognition.
In Cuba, a country without reliable refrigeration, it was not feasible to store perishable vaccine in every hospital and clinic. Instead, the health authorities vaccinated the entire population simultaneously over a few days. By doing so, Cuba had not only protected each vaccinated child but deprived the virus of all its potential carriers. Cuba was subsequently declared polio-free.
The keys to eradicate this highly infectious disease were, according to Sabin, the use of the oral vaccine and the need to administer it to an entire population at once.
Global partnership to eradicate the crippling diseaseVaccinating millions of children at once would help curb the spread of polio, but at the same time would pose several problems in terms of cost, logistics and manpower.
In 1979, Rotary International, in its commitment to large-scale humanitarian initiatives, teamed up with the World Health Organization, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, UNICEF, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to form the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, garnering the support of national governments and using the technique of mass immunisation.
The work of this global synergy had been impressive. In 1988, the number of children infected with polio plunged from 350,000 to 22 cases in 2017. It is predicted that the number will slide to a hopeful zero, as set out in the blueprint of the Polio Eradication and Endgame Strategic Plan 2013-2018. So far, except for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria, the prospect of a complete elimination of polio this year looks good.
Sabin, with his pioneering vaccine, was not just a name in the scientific world but also in the fields of humanitarianism. An advocate for peace, he initiated international collaboration, and fought the disease of ignorance and poverty. Through this concerted commitment and effort, the world is now on the brink of becoming polio-free. MIMS
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