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It’s time to talk about polio. Yes, polio.

For all the comparisons we’ve seen to the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic, COVID-19 has a lot of parallels with polio in the 1950’s. We actually know more about transmission of COVID-19 than we did about polio back then, but in both cases a virus was disrupting communities, causing a transient and often mild illness in many -- while striking down a much smaller fraction (about 1% of cases resulted in paralysis). And 65 years ago a new vaccine was coming online. The approach was cautious; decades earlier there had been disastrous experiments with polio vaccines, and before the Salk vaccine was approved over 1 million children were enrolled in clinical trials. The results showed overwhelming efficacy and safety.


But what happened next may be relevant today: in the rush to mass produce the vaccine, one laboratory released a vaccine that was not manufactured properly. Instead of preventing polio it resulted in cases of paralysis, and polio vaccination was temporarily suspended. Could something similar happen with COVID vaccine rollout -- a rush to manufacture with a substandard vaccine product released? A lot has changed since the 1950’s, and our experience with the polio vaccine rollout resulted in new, and effective, federal regulation of vaccine development and production. We should feel safer now. But “safer” is not the same as “safe” and a good discussion of COVID vaccine should include acknowledgement of risks, in context of potential benefits. So that’s what we’ll start tackling in our next few posts: vaccine safety and risk vs. benefit.

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