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Jonas Salk and the Polio Comeback


Jonas Salk, you should know this name, but chances are you don’t. He was the inventor of the polio vaccine, a disease that was feared more than the atomic bomb. Today we don’t think about it, no one “gets” polio anymore. Scientists get a bad rap today with the whole “autism-vaccine” BS. But they don’t know Salk, instead of making a small [see: huge] fortune from the drug, he refused to patent it and gave it to the people for essentially free. You think this story would have a happy ending, I mean we don’t have polio anymore… right? Well the devils in the details and it’s not good.

Thanks to effective vaccination, polio is considered nearly eradicated because of Salk’s efforts. Each year only a few hundred people are stricken worldwide. However, scientists are  now reporting alarming findings, a mutated virus that was able to resist the vaccine protection to a considerable extent was found in victims of an outbreak in the Congo in 2010. The pathogen could also potentially have infected many people in Germany.

This is unfortunately evolution in action, we placed what is called selective pressure on the virus and since we haven’t completely eliminated it yet, it was given time to find a way to survive.

You probably didn’t hear about it, or even don’t remember it, but the polio epidemic in the Congo in 2010 was especially serious. 445 people were verifiably infected, mostly young adults. The disease was fatal for 209 of them. Frankly, given the advances in technology and health care, this high mortality rate is surprising.

Also important was the fact that many of those affected had apparently been vaccinated. Surveys indicated that half of the patients remembered having received the prescribed three vaccination dosages. To date the vaccination has been considered a highly effective weapon for containing the polio viruses that cause the disease.

“We isolated polio-viruses from the deceased and examined the viruses more closely”, explains Dr. Jan Felix Drexler, who is in the meantime working in the Netherlands. “The pathogen carries a mutation that changes its form at a decisive point.”

The results were unfortunate, the antibodies induced by the vaccination can hardly block the mutated virus and render it harmless. In other words the vaccine is becoming ineffective because of the new mutations in the virus.

The researchers have examined the success with which the new pathogen evades the immune system. To this purpose, they tested, among others, blood samples from 34 medical students of the University of Bonn. All of them were vaccinated in childhood with the usual methods against polio. And very successfully, as an initial test showed, the antibodies in the blood of the test subjects had no problem combating “normal” polio viruses.The situation was different with the mutated virus; the immune reaction was much weaker here.

“We estimate that one in five of our Bonn test subjects could have been infected by the new polio virus, perhaps even one in three”, says Prof. Drosten.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has undertaken the goal of eradicating the polio virus in coming years. The role model here is smallpox — thanks to a consistent vaccination strategy, the earth has been classified as free of smallpox since 1980. The chances are principally good that something similar could succeed again. The polio virus can also only be transmitted from person to person. There are thus no pathogen reservoirs in animals from which the disease could spread repeatedly. Similar to with smallpox, the polio vaccines also offer extraordinary protection. This, however, does not apply when the virus mutates.

“When such an altered pathogen encounters a population that has not been consistently vaccinated enough, then things get dangerous”, the scientists warn.

The polio epidemic in the Congo was stopped with a massive vaccination program and hygiene measures. Even the current vaccines thus appear to be good enough to be effective when they are promptly and consistently administered.

The new pathogen is nonetheless a warning,”We can’t afford to sit back and do nothing”, the scientists warn. “We need to further increase the vaccination rate and develop new, more potent vaccines. Only in this way do we have a chance of permanently vanquishing polio.”

It’s things like this that make me fear the anti-vaccination movement. Diseases mutate, that is why you get the flu shot every year. Yeah, we don’t worry about it too much now, but that is because we vaccinate! The fewer people vaccinated the more chances these diseases have to mutate, do you really want your son or daughter to be patent zero for something that will cause mass death?

The take home message is a simple one, vaccines are safe, they have some of the most extensive testing done out of any medicine you will ever get. There are people out there, good people, wanting to help save the world. Sure you may not remember Salk and sure you will probably forget about him again after all this, but that doesn’t change the fact that there are many other scientists just like him all around the world. Scientists that don’t want to make a profit, who don’t care about fame or anything that comes with it. Scientists who honestly just want to make the world a better place by eliminating some of the suffering.

The only conspiracy here is the anti-vaccination movement wants to make a quick buck from peoples fears, no matter what the cost to you, your children, or the rest of the world.

Drexler JF, Grard G, Lukashev AN, Kozlovskaya LI, Böttcher S, Uslu G, Reimerink J, Gmyl AP, Taty-Taty R, Lekana-Douki SE, Nkoghe D, Eis-Hübinger AM, Diedrich S, Koopmans M, Leroy EM, & Drosten C (2014). Robustness against serum neutralization of a poliovirus type 1 from a lethal epidemic of poliomyelitis in the Republic of Congo in 2010. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America PMID: 25136105

One response

  1. Pingback: Evolution of whooping cough and the anti-vaccination movement | Lunatic Laboratories

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