Albert Sabin and the Oral Polio Vaccine
Born in Poland in 1906, Albert Sabin, M.D., and his family left there in 1921 to escape
anti-Semitism. He came to Children's Hospital of Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1939. Dr. Sabin's
research, documented in some 350 scientific papers, would include work on pneumonia,
encephalitis, toxoplasmosis, viruses, sandfly fever, dengue and cancer. But his passion
was poliomyelitis, and this was where he turned his attention after World War II.
Dr. Sabin first thought the polio virus gained entrance through the respiratory tract,
then found evidence that entry was through the digestive system. His studies of incidence
showed that, contrary to many diseases, acute polio was rare in urban populations with
poor sanitation conditions (as existed in many parts of China).
Follow-up studies showed that children in such places had protective antibodies in
their blood, though they exhibited no sign of ever having had polio. Dr. Sabin reasoned that such immune children had either contracted the viral
infection as infants (when they had partial immunity transferred from their mothers) or
been infected by an attenuated or weakened strain of the virus, which had produced
immunity without acute symptoms.
Dr. Sabin then scoured the world looking for weak strains of polio virus, found three,
and began to develop his oral, "live" vaccine, administered at first on a lump
of sugar or in a teaspoonful of syrup.
In 1957 the World Health Organization (WHO) decided Dr. Sabin's vaccine deserved
world-wide testing. He was invited to administer the vaccine to large groups of children
in parts of Russia, Holland, Mexico, Chile, Sweden, and Japan. But at home in the United
States, he had a hard time convincing the Poliomyelitis Foundation and the U.S. Public
Health Service his method was any better than Jonas Salk's "killed" vaccine
An advantage of Dr. Sabin's oral vaccine, especially in less developed countries, is
ease of administration: no shots. But two other pluses are even more important. First, the
live vaccine gives both intestinal and bodily immunity; the killed vaccine gives only
bodily immunity and allows the immune person to still serve as a carrier or transmitter.
Second, the Sabin vaccine produces lifelong immunity without the need for a booster shot
By the time the U.S. Public Health Service gave approval for testing, some 80 million
people outside the U.S. had taken the vaccine. The first U.S. test was held on "Sabin
Sunday," April 24, 1960.
Polio is now virtually unknown in the U.S., rare in other parts of the world, and
calculations show that, in hospital costs in the U.S. alone, enough money is saved each
year to more than pay for all the research ever done on polio. Each year in the U.S. the
effects of the Sabin vaccine keep about 25,000 people from getting polio; keep about 2,000
of them from dying, and about 2,500 from being completely disabled.