If the effective use of polio and smallpox vaccines had been prevented in the past, we would still be afflicted by these dreadful diseases, writes Alastair Moffat.
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 1944-5 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 viral diseases.
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 viral diseases and eventually, it was hoped, for the production of a vaccine against poliomyelitis.
Professor James Gear was appointed the Director of this Poliomyelitis Research Foundation (PRF) research facility, and he and his team worked closely with other researchers in the world, notably Dr Jonas 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 use of vaccines. In 2020, Africa was officially declared free of polio by the World Health Organization.
In April 1976, the laboratories of the PRF were transferred to the State Department of Health and the National Institute of Virology, (now the National Institute of Communicable Diseases, or NICD), 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 viral-borne diseases. Over the last 15 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. Those resisting this, need to be educated and convinced, regarding both the safety of these vaccination programmes 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 viral- 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.
- Alastair 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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