COVID-19 Vaccination: Learn from the past


The recent upsurge in COVID-19 cases in Greater Sydney and Goulburn has set everyone’s pulse racing, but on the up-side there is evidence to suggest that it has resulted in an uptake of vaccinations against the virus across the State.

Some readers may remember the poliomyelitis (polio) epidemic of the 1940s – 1960s here in Australia. Polio is a gastrointestinal virus that is highly contagious, but in terms of symptoms, in the majority of cases polio has either no effect at all or no more than flu-like symptoms.

Unfortunately, in a small percentage of those infected, the virus spread to the nervous system causing paralysis, usually of the legs. Polio could also compromise a person’s ability to breathe by paralysing their diaphragm muscles. Large artificial respirators – ‘iron lungs’ – were built to accommodate the patient’s body up to their neck. The frequently changing air pressure within the machine made it possible for air to flow in and out of the patient’s lungs when they were unable to breathe for themselves.

In 1932 Queensland nurse Sister Elizabeth Kenny began treating the physical effects of polio using warm compresses and massage. Such was the popularity of her treatment that Sister Kenny clinics opened around Australia and in England. She also spent 11 years in the USA where she was greatly lauded.

In 1955 Dr Jonas Salk and his research team at the University of Pittsburgh in the USA, developed the first polio vaccine, which was administered by injection. Dr Percival Bazeley of the Australian Commonwealth Serum Laboratories (CSL) was sent to work with Salk and returned to Melbourne in 1955 to begin manufacturing the vaccine. The first Salk vaccines were distributed across Australia in June 1956 and 25 million doses of the vaccine were produced by CSL under Dr Bazeley’s directorship. In 1961 an oral vaccine developed by Dr Albert Sabin, which was first used in Australia in 1966.

By 1964, 83 per cent of New South Wales children were vaccinated, but only 72 per cent of children in Victoria, but these vaccination rates were not high enough. The eradication of a disease relies on ‘herd immunity’, which occurs when the vaccination of a significant portion of a population (or herd) provides protection for individuals who have not developed immunity. The lack of herd immunity contributed to another outbreak of polio in Australia in 1961 and 1962.

Thankfully, polio vaccinations were taken up en masse, and in October 2000 the World Health Organization declared the Western Pacific region, which includes Australia, to be polio-free.

Today there are an estimated 400,000 polio survivors in Australia, many of whom still live with the long-term effects of the disease.

It’s up to us to learn from the past and to do ourselves and others a kindness by getting vaccinated against COVID-19.

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