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Student Education

Egos, trials and nobel prizes

BMJ 2004; 329 doi: (Published 01 November 2004) Cite this as: BMJ 2004;329:0411399
  1. Christian Schopflin, medical student1
  1. 1St George's Medical School, London

In light of the recent polio vaccination campaign in Africa, Christian Schopflin takes a look at the origins of the vaccine

Pub Medic:Impress your mates at the pub with your startling repertoire of esoteric medical knowledge.

We come across the two vaccines Sabin and Salk during our paediatric firms. But other than lending their names to the poliomyelitis section in textbooks, Albert Sabin and Jonas Salk are otherwise unknown.

Polio was never a big killer, but the evil of this disease was its ability to disappear and reappear every summer and autumn. It predominately affected children, hence the name “infantile paralysis,” and although seldom fatal, the condition often caused paralysis and disability.

In 1908, Karl Landsteiner first explained polio's mysterious pattern of occurrence. By feeding monkeys tissue from the spinal cord of people with polio Landsteiner was able to show that polio occurred in nervous tissue and spread via the oral route.1 Polio was soon shown to be a viral disease. In 1935, after earlier failing experiments, scientists had little doubt that a vaccine was the only real hope.

Doctors Albert Sabin and Jonas Salk were key figures in the research. Sabin used a live attenuated vaccine, a method pioneered by Edward Jenner in 1798. Salk decided to achieve immunity through exposure to the killed virus. Sabin received support from the scientific community, as it was felt that a live attenuated vaccine taken orally would mimic the natural route …

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