Our polio story | Action Medical Research

Touching Lives - March 2012

Our polio story

Action Medical Research is celebrating 60 years of vital research for babies and children this year.

The charity was first set up in 1952, when Britain was very different to how it is today. World War II had finished seven years before and its effects were still widely felt. People queued for hours with their identity cards and ration books for staple goods like tea, meat and cheese. All in all people were more active but not necessarily healthier. The National Health Service had been founded in 1948 to provide free healthcare for all, but Britons lived increasingly in fear of a growing, terrifying threat for which there was no vaccine and no known cure – the highly-infectious viral disease poliomyelitis, or polio for short, which reached its destructive peak in the 1940s and 50s. Spread from person to person, infection could be mild and temporary, with the victim often not even realising they were ill. But sometimes the virus would invade a person’s nervous system and the effects were devastating, leading to a range of debilitating problems, including meningitis and muscle paralysis.

Polio has probably been around as long as human beings, but in the 20th century epidemics started happening every year. Hospital wards were lined with ‘iron lungs’, huge pressurised metal chambers in which polio patients were placed to help them breathe.

One man whose life was radically changed by the disease was former soldier Duncan Guthrie. Duncan married Prue Holloway and the couple had a daughter, but in 1949 doctors gave them the bleak diagnosis that their 20-month-old daughter Janet had contracted polio.

For Duncan and Prue one of the cruellest aspects of the disease was the practice of quarantining patients. For an entire month, they were forbidden from visiting young Janet – and when visits were allowed they were limited to once a week. Janet was fortunate to recover from polio and escape its many disabling effects, but many thousands weren’t so lucky. In 1950 alone there were almost 8,000 reported cases and nearly 800 deaths. Speaking at the time, Duncan said: “It was painfully clear that very little was known about polio. When my own personal turmoil had died down, I realised the greatest contribution to be made would be in helping the medical profession to develop its knowledge about the disease, and in enabling it to improve both prevention and treatment.”

True to his word, in 1952 Duncan founded the National Fund for Poliomyelitis Research, as Action Medical Research was then known.

The charity proceeded to fund research teams around the country, exclusively for research into all aspects of polio. Money went not just towards developing a vaccine, but also to projects aimed at improving diagnosis, finding out about the biology of the disease and improving the treatment and support available to the thousands of polio survivors left with lasting physical disabilities.

A significant amount went to Professor George Dick at Queen’s University, Belfast. The charity supported Professor Dick and his team during the 1950s and 60s, when they played a major part in testing and developing two polio vaccines for use in the UK – the injectable Salk vaccine, first introduced in 1955, and the oral ‘sugar cube’ Sabin vaccine, introduced seven years later. Much of Professor Dick’s work focused on establishing the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines, determining the right amount to give and the best ways to administer them. Other work included surveying how well the vaccines protected whole populations against polio and how the polio virus infected humans.

Thousands of polio survivors had been left with physical problems such as paralysed limbs, so the charity also funded numerous innovative projects to help them. This resulted in a range of successes, from developing a powered wheelchair for outside use and prosthetic arms and communication aids, and improving clothing and equipment. Thanks to the charity’s help the lives of polio survivors and other people with disabilities were made easier.

Today, new cases of polio have been eradicated in the UK and worldwide levels have plummeted, with the number of endemic countries at an historic low. Action supporters and researchers can look back over the charity’s six decades of work and know they have been pivotal in helping to create an extraordinary track record in supporting some of the most significant medical breakthroughs in recent history.

Throughout our history, children have been at the heart of what we do. Just a few of our many successes include:

Helping more babies to be born healthy by:
Helping to introduce ultrasound scanning in pregnancy
Discovering the importance of taking folic acid to prevent spina bifida

Supporting children with disabilities by:
Developing a revolutionary artificial limb bone
Creating the award-winning, adjustable Matrix seating system

Protecting children from infections by:
Supporting the lead researcher whose team helped establish a vaccine for meningitis
Testing the early rubella vaccine – which became part of the first MMR vaccine
Identifying the genes responsible for rare and devastating conditions, such as Von Hippel-Lindau disease and Van der Woude syndrome.

Find out more about our success stories here

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