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One of the main priorities of the global health community is to eradicate polio, a viral disease causing muscle weakness, paralysis, and sometimes death. In the twentieth century, the number of cases of polio was so high that researchers put a tremendous amount of effort and time striving to invent a vaccine for poliomyelitis. With its introduction in the mid-1950s, the rate of polio cases plummeted in the United States reassuring the American community. However, the history of immunization development for this disease is not without obstacles which could have stopped the progress of eventual successful vaccine development. Notwithstanding negative incidents, researchers like Salk and Sabin, who later developed the vaccines, continued to work since they understood that no matter the cost, the results would be worth it since thousands of lives would be saved.
Fortunately, nowadays, most of the people reside in areas that are believed to be free of the wild polio virus circulation (Patel, Zipursky, Orenstein, Garon, & Zaffran, 2015). Today, there are two kinds of vaccine from polio, both developed by the American researchers in the middle of the twentieth century. The first one was proposed by Jonas Salk who was “the leading proponent of the killed virus” and the second was produced by Albert Sabin, who suggested “the attenuated virus approach” (“Two vaccines”, para. 2).
The first “successful inactivated virus vaccine” – influenza vaccine – helped Salk to develop his famous inactivated vaccine which is safe and cannot cause disease if made correctly (Plotkin, 2014, p. 12283). However, one of its components “caused the immune system to recognize killed virus differently from a live virus,” so it could lead to a shortened period of immunity (“Two vaccines”, para. 3). The large-scale trial of Salk’s vaccine was conducted in the early 1950s, and the results were positive; however, it did not stop opponents of “killed” virus from developing their own vaccine.
Many researchers believed that only using a live virus can result in long-term immunity from polio. Being one of them, Sabin strived for the development of a weakened – or attenuated – virus. The general acceptance of Salk’s vaccine forced Sabin to go overseas to find people for his trials. Being an American, he nevertheless managed to conduct an extensive vaccine trial in the Soviet Union during the hottest period of the cold war because people were far more focused on their health (or, rather, fear of death) than on political differences. In the 1960s, Sabin’s live vaccine became popular because “immediately after vaccination, people shed weakened virus in their fecal waste,” and it improved their immunity and “gradually reduced the number of people susceptible to poliomyelitis” (“Two vaccines”, para. 10). The vaccine managed to replace that of Salk for more than three decades, but as sometimes Sabin’s vaccine caused actual polio, the United States decided rather to turn to Salk’s vaccine at the end of a century.
Failures on the Way
Unfortunately, outstanding and beneficial inventions rarely emerge without any negative consequences. During the development period of the two vaccines, both live and killed viruses used in them resulted in accidents. In Berkeley, for example, there was an accident when during the trial, some of two hundred children tested became paralyzed or even died. More than a hundred thousand monkeys had to be killed to produce the vaccine, and scientists tested the vaccine on themselves and their families to prove its safeness. However, although there were many obstacles on the way of developing an effective and safe vaccine, it was worth it since today, these vaccines save millions of lives.
Summing up, making miracles often brings about some complications on its way, just like in the cases of Sabin and Salk. However, believing in the notion of serving greater good both for people and science, they did not abandon their research when obstacles occurred. Neither negative incidents during the vaccine trial nor the necessity to test it on themselves and their families prevented researchers from developing vaccines that have saved and will save valuable human lives.
Patel, M., Zipursky, S., Orenstein, W., Garon, J., & Zaffran, M. (2015). Polio endgame: The global introduction of inactivated polio vaccine. Expert Review of Vaccines, 14(5), 749–762.
Plotkin, S. (2014). History of vaccination. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(34), 12283–12287.
Two vaccines. Web.