The Battle to Beat Polio

Model of an iron lung to explain to a child with polio what would be happening to them: "It looked like a coffin, and it effectively was a coffin. Three-quarters of people put into this died in the machine"

Model of an iron lung to explain to a child with polio what would be happening to them: “It looked like a coffin, and it effectively was a coffin. Three-quarters of people put into this died in the machine”

Broadcaster: BBC 2

Year: 2014

Genre: Documentary



Review by Lorna McCall

In this documentary former BBC economics editor Stephanie Flanders presents a fascinating and engaging documentary on polio. The programme looks into the development of an effective vaccine during the 20th century. The impetus for this project was spurred on by the global epidemic of polio which was paralysing and killing many children. Flanders has a personal interest since her father Michael – half of the music hall double-act Flanders and Swann – was wheelchair bound for more than 30 years of his life as a consequence of infection with the poliomyelitis virus during WWII. He died from polio-related complications when she was only six.

The programme picks up on the battle against the microbe and the rivalries between different scientists. It also highlights the different types of vaccines and their advantages and disadvantages:

  • Attenuated Vaccine: Form of living pathogen that has been altered to have no virulence. This produces immunity to a “mutant” form of the virus.
  • Inactivated Vaccine: Pathogen that has been killed, yet maintains all virulence causing factors to induce immunity.

06:28 In 1909 Karl Landsteiner made the important discovery that polio disease is caused by Poliomyelitis virus rather than a bacterial infection. This prompted scientists to target research into producing preventative vaccine treatments.

08:10 Simon Flexner of the Rockefeller Institute set out to determine if a vaccine could be developed. As polio effects the central nervous system, Flexner set out to determine if the virus ever entered the blood. Unfortunately, due to poorly designed experiments, he believed that the virus was never present in the blood and hence would not be amenable to antibody development. In reality the virus enters the body through the GI tract, where it is absorbed across into the blood. Not only did his own experiments get this wrong, but his influence in wider medical circles also deflected others away from looking into development of a vaccine against polio.

14:40 In the 1930s John Kolmer and Maurice Brodie were the first pair of scientists to battle with each other to produce their own version of the vaccine. Kolmer decided the vaccine should be an attenuated version of the live virus. Brodie decided that the vaccine should be an inactivated dead form of the virus. Due to the rivalry, each took safety risks in order to get their vaccine to market. This led to results indicating some patients contracted polio and became paralysed, with some subjects even dying. The results of both set of experiments faced much criticism from the scientific community resulting in a ban for both vaccines. The great failings in their research set back the development of a vaccine.

28:30 In the late 40s Hilary Koprowski developed a new version of the attenuated vaccine. Koprowski’s new vaccine was ingested by drinking and therefore absorbed by the gut as in a normal polio infection. Results from his experiments showed patients developed antibodies against the virus, leading to distribution of the vaccine to many children. Unfortunately it was discovered that after passing through the body the vaccine was able to return to being an infectious form excreted via faeces.

34:00 During the 50s another scientific battle arose between Albert Savin and Jonas Salk. Savin was working steadily on producing an attenuated vaccine, whereas Salk was quickly developing an inactivated virus. Due to better funding and facilities Salk’s vaccine made it to distribution first. Many children were vaccinated, leading to a steep decrease in polio incidence in the USA. The vaccine was not introduced in Britain for many years due to a safety incidence caused by a fault in the manufacturing process. Savin meanwhile had continued to work on his vaccine and eventually this was distributed.

56:14 In reality, today both Savin and Salk’s vaccines are used together to help control the outbreak of polio. We are on the brink of eradicating polio globally using this preventative method. Although scientific egos may have been initially harmful to the cause, determination to find an appropriate vaccine had led to the development of effective vaccine treatments.


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