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The history of polio

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Worldwide polio cases have decreased by over 99% since 1988, from an estimated 350,000 cases then, to 74 reported cases in 2015. But as long as a single child remains infected, children in all countries are at risk of contracting polio. Failure to eradicate polio completely could result in as many as 200,000 new cases every year, within 10 years, all over the world*. We're supporting World Polio Day to help share this important message - and to honour the role that our charity's founder, Duncan Guthrie, played in introducing the first UK polio vaccines.



Polio is caused by the poliovirus, a highly contagious virus specific to humans. It enters the body through the nose or mouth and develops in the throat and intestines.The polio virus may go on to invade the central nervous system, destroying or damaging the nerve cells that control muscles, resulting in varying degrees of weakness, then paralysis. Polio mainly affects children aged under five years of age. One in 200 infections leads to irreversible paralysis and, among those paralysed, five to 10 per cent die when their breathing muscles become immobilized. There is no cure for polio once a person becomes infected; it can only be prevented by immunization.

In the 1950s a device known as an 'iron lung' (above, left) was used to help polio patients whose breathing muscles had become affected. The machine worked by creating a space in the lungs that was automatically filled by air flowing in through the mouth and nose. Once the patient was enclosed in the machine, a perfect seal was created. When the air was pumped out of the casing, the reduction in pressure made the chest rise, filling the lungs. When the air was allowed back in, the lungs emptied.

Action Medical Research and the polio vaccine

Action was founded by Duncan Guthrie, whose own daughter Janet  contracted polio aged just 20 months. Our charity played a crucial role in the development of the first UK polio vaccines, and has since helped enable many medical advances to help save and change the lives of children today. Early funding from Action (then known as the National Fund for Poliomyelitis Research) 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, which was introduced in 1962. These researchers focused on establishing the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines, as well as the right amount to give and the best ways to administer them. They also explored how polio infects humans and how well the vaccines could protect whole populations.

An epidemic in the 1950s in the UK and beyond

Did you know that Great British Bake Off's Mary Berry contracted polio at the age of 13 and had to spend three months in hospital? This resulted in her having a twisted spine, a weaker left hand and thinner left arm. She has said that the period of forced separation from her family while in hospital 'toughened [her] up' and taught her to make the most of every opportunity she would have. The father of Stephanie Flanders, former BBC economics editor, was paralysed by the infection when he was 21. 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 died, aged just 53, through complications caused by the disease. Other well-known names affected outside of the UK as children include Mia Farrow, Donald Sutherland and Joni Mitchell.

World Polio Day: there's still more work to do

The polio epidemic in the 1950s in the UK, and subsequent vaccines which helped protect many thousands, demonstrate clearly the importance of medical research. Commemorating the birthday of Dr Jonas Salk, who led the first team to develop a vaccine against poliomyelitis, World Polio Day is on 24 October. It's a day when we remember the amazing efforts of our founder whose determination to discover a vaccine for polio inspires us today, as we continue to work to save and change the lives of vulnerable babies and children through vital medical research. It's also a day we add our voice and share the message that there is more work to be done to eradicate this dreadful disease and keep every child, in every country, safe from the threat of polio.

Find out more

You can find out more about our heritage as a charity here and see poignant pictures from the 1950s here. Sussex grandmother Christine Beet kindly shares her polio memories on the Action blog.

Will you help make a difference for other sick babies and children? 


* World Health Organisation online: [accessed 17 October 2016]