Covid-19: Why Vaccinate – lessons from polio and many others

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It is crucial that people understand the need to take the vaccine. Picture: iStock
It is crucial that people understand the need to take the vaccine. Picture: iStock

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A schoolteacher on talk radio recently declared strong resistance to being vaccinated, because “he knows polio was caused by a vaccine”.

South Africa was affected by a poliomyelitis epidemic in 1944/1945 which began in Durban where returning troops disembarked on their return from the Middle East.

The infection then involved the whole country, affecting each city, town and village in turn. There were several thousand cases and several hundred deaths.

The epidemic of 1948 was even more severe. Professor James Gear of the University of the Witwatersrand Medical School gave a lecture in April 1948 to students and the Medical Graduates Association in which he emphasised that South Africa offered great opportunities for the study of poliomyelitis.

The following day, a newspaper reporter who’d heard the lecture phoned the mayoress of Johannesburg, Evelyn Gordon, to tell her of the suggestion that a poliomyelitis research foundation should be established in South Africa to support research into poliomyelitis with the hope of developing a protective vaccine.

Gordon called a meeting of various authorities to advise her, and this meeting decided that a public appeal should be launched to collect funds to support research into poliomyelitis and other virus diseases.

South Africa was one of the first countries in the world to institute a large-scale immunisation program against polio with the use of vaccines.

The appeal was generously supported by the South African public, and within one year over half a million pounds, then worth R1 million, was collected.

A board of trustees was appointed and the decision was made to build special laboratories for the study of poliomyelitis and other virus diseases and eventually, it was hoped, for the production of a vaccine.

Read | Covid-19 vaccine: A race against time

Professor James Gear was appointed the director of this research facility, and he and his team worked closely with other researchers in the world, notably Dr Salk in the US. The work of these individuals led to the development of highly successful vaccines which have been used to eliminate polio from most of the world.

South Africa was one of the first countries in the world to institute a large-scale immunisation program against polio with the use of vaccines. In 2020, Africa was officially declared free of polio by the World Health Organisation.

So, far from a vaccine causing polio, the polio vaccine has virtually eliminated polio.

In April 1976, the laboratories of the Poliomyelitis Research Foundation (PRF) were transferred to the State Department of Health and the National Institute of Virology, was born.

The PRF which had played such a crucial role in the formation of this country’s virological capacity now became the most important local sponsor of virological research in South Africa.

Using the money, it was paid by the State for the takeover of its laboratories, the board has husbanded this initial R1 million to support research and study into virus borne diseases.

Those resisting this need to be educated and convinced, regarding both the safety of these vaccination programs and their urgent necessity in this time of crisis.

Over the last fifteen years the PRF, using the income and growth generated from its initial R1 million, has disbursed more than R120 million on these activities.

In 1977, one of the most feared of the classical and highly lethal diseases, Smallpox, was eradicated from the planet and the necessity to vaccinate fell away.

Right now, the PRF is very concerned about the hesitancy in some quarters regarding the use of effective vaccines to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic.

Once again, the large-scale immunisation of the world’s population, using effective vaccines is urgently required.

Read | Drop in childhood vaccinations could lead to outbreaks, experts warn

Those resisting this need to be educated and convinced, regarding both the safety of these vaccination programs and their urgent necessity in this time of crisis.

If the effective use of polio and smallpox vaccines had been prevented in the past, we would still be afflicted by these dreadful diseases.

Now, with a lethal virus borne disease that is spread more easily in our interconnected world, it is even more vital for large scale immunisation against Covid 19 to be implemented.

Moffat is chairperson of The Poliomyelitis Research Foundation

Acknowledgement: Parts of this opinion piece have been taken from: James H S Gear: “The History of the Poliomyelitis Research Foundation”


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