The polio vaccine: protecting children in the UK | Action Medical Research

The polio vaccine: protecting children in the UK

Earlier this week, BBC2 aired a documentary entitled The Battle to Beat Polio. The programme featured Stephanie Flanders, former BBC economics editor, whose father Michael was paralysed by the infection when he was 21. The documentary delved into the desperate search for a vaccine from the 1930s onwards.

At that time polio killed hundreds of children in the UK each year and disabled over 30,000 people in Britain between 1947 and 1958.

Stephanie’s father, Michael Flanders, was one half of the world-famous singing duo of that era, Flanders and Swann. He survived as a young man, but his paralysis due to polio meant he was forced to use a wheelchair. He then died, aged just 53, through complications caused by the disease. His daughter was just six.

Protecting children through vaccination

Thanks to our supporters, we are so proud to have funded research which, amongst other areas, has helped develop key vaccines to protect babies and children against diseases like polio, rubella (German measles) and Hib meningitis.

Our charity was originally founded in 1952 by Duncan Guthrie, who was driven to find a cure for polio because his own young daughter Janet contracted the disease.

Understandably frustrated by the lack of research and treatment in the UK at that time our founder set up the National Fund for Poliomyelitis Research. Within the decade, the UK polio vaccine was introduced and has kept millions of children safe from the deadly virus.

Early funding from us went to Professor George Dick and his team at Queen’s University in Belfast, to test and develop two polio vaccines for use in the UK: the injectable Salk vaccine, introduced in 1955, and the oral sugar cube Sabin vaccine, introduced in 1962.

The impact of polio on so many young lives

Jon Mundy’s aunt Liz was born in 1939 and at only six years old she contracted Polio at a children’s birthday party. Jon is a supporter of Action and has taking part in many of our charity cycling events, including our iconic London to Paris ride. He says:

“My aunt was in hospital for years and was never expected to live past the age of 10. Other children at the party died. She never really grew and had terrible breathing problems. Despite contracting Polio and the prognosis from doctors, she lived until just before her 60th birthday. Liz led a very full and active life, but was always having health issues and you could tell her body was very badly beaten from trying to fight polio. She played a significant role in campaigning for disabled access in concert halls and music venues and grew a huge circle of loyal friends. She was a lovely woman and played a large part in my childhood.

A couple of years ago I got back into cycling and my friend suggested that we sign up for a London to Paris ride.  I looked into the charity and saw that it had a strong link to Polio, so I saw it as an opportunity to do something in my aunt’s memory. Work undertaken by Action Medical Research means that what happened to my aunt Liz should never happen again and as a father of three, this is very important to me.

Whenever I speak to people about the London to Paris ride I inevitably begin to talk about my aunt and her battle with Polio. I am always surprised at how no one really knows how widespread polio was in the 1950s and what a devastating disease it is. I am just glad that I could do something to support the charity which protects children from polio in this country and remember my dear aunt at the same time.”

Still more to do 

The polio epidemic in the 1950s in the UK and subsequent vaccine demonstrate clearly the importance of medical research.

Although, through research, we have helped save and change many children’s lives, there is still much more to learn. Medical research into conditions that affect children is relatively underfunded in the UK and Action Medical Research has a vital role to play in filling this funding gap.

Mark Gardiner, Professor of Paediatrics at University College London, is one of our trustees. He says:

“Much remains to be done. Research in paediatrics and child health remains a vital and essential force for good in helping to improve the lives of children in this country and throughout the world, the adults of the future, in the years to come.”

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