Lessons From The Past And Present For Controlling Covid-19: Polio

Though we’ve cycled through many kinds of public health interventions in our struggle to stop Covid-19 from spreading, mass vaccination is now the primary means through which we’re aiming to end the pandemic for good. Given this, more than ever we need to be studying mass vaccination campaigns that proved successful. The most astounding of these by far was polio—an eradication effort more than 70 years in the making that, thanks to a new vaccine model, may finally come to an end. In this article I’ll explore the research behind this vaccine in greater detail, not just to elaborate on why it is so impressive, but to delve deeper into its lessons for the current crisis.

Of all the diseases to cause global pandemics in the past century, the only we’ve eradicated so far is polio. Thanks to vaccines, polio prevalence has been reduced to a small sliver of what it once was—at its worst in the late 1940s, infecting hundreds of thousands and paralyzing more than 35,000 people a year. Unlike SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, the poliovirus exists only in humans, meaning it can’t come at us sideways from an animal reservoir. Even so, parallels exist between the two that are worth considering as our conversations begin to shift from short-term to long-term immunity.

One lesson from polio we must take into account is the importance of distinguishing between a vaccine that prevents disease and a vaccine that prevents transmission. The struggle to eradicate polio drove home the fact that different vaccines elicit different types of immunity, each with its own set of implications for public health. The current generation of Covid-19 vaccines, created by the likes of Moderna and Pfizer, prevents serious illness and death, as evidenced by their enormous success in clinical trials. But whether they will stop transmission is currently unknown.

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Originally published on Forbes (March 8, 2021)

© William A. Haseltine, PhD. All Rights Reserved.