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Protecting children from polio

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Charity founder Duncan Guthrie pictured with children

Inspired by the desperate need to protect children from polio back in the 1950s, Duncan Guthrie laid the foundations for Action Medical Research. Now, we’re the UK’s leading charity funding vital research to save and change children’s lives and we’re forging ahead to fund research to help better understand the impact of COVID-19 on children.

Sixty years ago polio was one of the most feared diseases in the developed world. In the early 1950s, 8,000 people were paralysed by polio each year in the UK. Tragically, five to 10 per cent lost their lives after their breathing muscles became immobilised. 

Frustrated by the lack of research and treatment centres in the UK Duncan set up the National Fund for Poliomyelitis Research to find a cure for polio. Within 10 years, the first UK polio vaccines were introduced and have kept millions of children safe from this deadly virus ever since. 

Introducing the first UK polio vaccines 

The charity’s early funding helped support polio research across the UK, including the work of 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, first introduced in 1955, and the oral sugar cube Sabin vaccine, introduced in 1962. 

Research 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. 

Duncan Guthrie’s own daughter Janet was diagnosed with polio in 1949, at just 20 months old. Her parents were not allowed to see her at all for her first month in hospital and, when visits were eventually allowed, they were limited to once a week - a distressing and painful time for the family and, most of all, for little Janet. 

Thankfully, Janet recovered from her illness, but for many thousands that wasn't the case. 

The drooping corners of her mouth and silent tears on her cheek as the bell and bustling nurses chivvied visitors from the ward will remain with me forever.

Duncan Guthrie, speaking at the time of his daughter's hospitalisation

Protecting children from COVID-19

Since those early days we've invested more than £125 million (c£350 million in today’s terms) in top quality research into child health, including supporting the introduction of the Rubella vaccine and the Hib vaccine to protect against bacterial meningitis

With the threat of coronavirus, we’re searching for answers to help better understand how the virus affects children, since so little is known about this. Following in the footsteps of our founder, whose determination knew no bounds, we’re driving forward research to better understand the impact of COVID-19 on children. 

We're now funding five projects in this area and hope that this vital research could lead to new ways to prevent and treat severe illness in children as a result of COVID-19 – and shed light on why children are more protected from this virus than adults. This could provide key information to help now and to fight future pandemics.