POLITICS AND POLIO: THE IRON CURTAIN AND THE IRON LUNG
Mr Chairman and Honoured Guests
My name is Domokos Boda.
I was born and educated in Hungary
which is as beautiful country in Eastern Europe.
I am paediatrician there,
and I spent my whole career working in my native land .
I want to tell you an interesting story
about how the dreaded disease…. Polio
intertwined with…. Politics in Eastern Europe
back in the 1950’s,
which was early in the course of my own career.
Polio is a virus infection.
It is transmitted from person to person
by contaminated food and water.
The disease has now been eliminated
in Developed countries
by vaccination in childhood
but in the 1950’s, polio was still a scourge…
It was epidemic in Europe and North America.
Some patients had to be put on
aprimitive form of a ventilator,
called….the Iron Lung,
to survive the early phase of the illness,
and many patients that did survive
were left with permanent muscular paralysis.
So it was a very unpleasant affliction.
The best Cure for Polio…. is Prevention
Efforts to develop a polio vaccine
to prevent the disease
started in the United States in the early 1950s.
The Salk vaccine (Dr.Salk) arriveed in 1954.1
It was given by injection.
In 1957. there was a Polio epidemic in Hungary.
It could not have come at a worse time.
because the previous year, 1956,
was the year of the failed democratic Hungarian revolution
which was crushed when the Soviets
sent the Red Army tanks into Budapest.
and our country was to remain
behind the Iron Curtain ….of Communist control
for many more years.
And then the next year the 1957 polio epidemic.
Two very bad years in our country.
The Salk vaccine was brought into Hungary
to prevent any futher outbreak of Polio,
but it also failed,
because there was a more severe epidemic
in Hungary in 1959, two years later.
So a better vaccine was needed.
Now Back In the USSR,
(by the way, the Beatles epidemic
was not to emerge in Europe
for another decade)
but back in the USSR
Dr. Mikhail Chumakov was head of
the Polio Research Institute in Moscow.
News had emerged that Dr. Sabin….
a United States immunologist
who was actually a Russian émigré to the US…
that Dr. Sabin had developed a new and better vaccine…
given by mouth, the Sabin vaccine.
The Soviet Dictator, Joseph Stalin
had died in 1953,
and there was now more of an opportunity
for the two countries to collaborate ….
so Dr. Chumakov visited the United States
to work with Dr. Sabin on this new vaccine,
and in turn Sabin visited Moscow
and the two doctors worked together
to develop techniques of mass production of the vaccine.
Dr.Chumakov then came to Hungary
to try to persuade us that the Sabin vaccine
was the best weapon to prevent polio,
and after that , a Hungarian delegation
which included an epidemiologist, a virologist, and a paediatrician (me)
went to Moscow
to visit Chumakov’s Polio Institute
to find out more about
the very exciting Sabin vaccine.
After our visit there, as protocol dictated,
we reported to the Soviet government Ministry of Health.
To our surprise from there
we were directed to a factory
that was producing not the new Sabin vaccine,
but the old Salk vaccine.
A Soviet scientist at this factory,
tried to convince us
that the live Sabin vaccine was dangerous….
that it was causing severe paralysis.
He also told us that Dr. Chumakov
was an "imperialist’ agent,"
and that Chumakov’s aim was
to eliminate the whole Soviet population
so there was a certain paranoia still around
at that time, even though Mr. Stalin
had been dead for 6 years.
In Russia at that time
all decisions came from the decree
of a Central Party Committee,
so Chumakov had problems promoting the new vaccine.
However, he had a certain status:
he was as a member of the Soviet Academy,
and his father-in-law was a Soviet war hero,
so he did get permission
to test the vaccine in a few Russian children.
The results of the tests were good
but Chumakov still was not allowed
to do large scale immunisation in Russia.
So being a resource chap,
he went to the Baltic Republics,
got permission to vaccinate there,
and caused quite a sensation when
he managed to immunize in two weeks
10 million people .
And that is exactly what we wanted to do in Hungary,
but despite the success of the vaccine in the Baltics
it would still have been impossible
to use the Sabin vaccine in Hungary
IF the official Soviet view was known.
So those of us who were involved in this
decided to keep quiet about the controversy,
and we recommended the oral Sabin vaccine anyway.
The result was that in 1959 in Hungary
2.3 million children , and 300 000 adults
were immunised, with the new vaccine.
We put a good monitoring program in place
to watch for vaccine side effects,.
any suspicious case
was referred to my department for assessment,
and our analysis of these cases
were presented to an international conference
held in Budapest, Hungary
in the spring of 1960
which Dr. Sabin himself attended.
We reviewed the cases that had been referred to us,
and in the end we concluded
that the vaccine was indeed safe. The effect of all of this was threefold:
1. No further polio epidemics
occurred in Hungary after 1960.
2. Back in the United States
the Sabin vaccine was in full use by 1962;
3. and Back in the USSR
in 1963, Dr. Chumakov was vindicated
for his promotion of the new vaccine
when he was awarded the "Lenin Prize” ,
which was the highest award
in the former Soviet Union,
for his work with the vaccine.
So, as with the global
Swine Influenza epidemic of 2009
50 years earlier, in 1959
in the saga of the Iron Curtain and the Iron lung.
Politics and Polio,
were closed connected.