Stop oral polio vaccines

Bad idea: Live virus in the doses can cause the disease rather than prevent it.

November 25, 1999

TOO MANY American doctors are still giving youngsters an oral polio vaccine that can cause the paralyzing disease rather than prevent it. They're giving this oral vaccine despite years of concern by the medical establishment and strong federal warnings. They ought to stop.

The oral vaccine is easier to administer than an injected one. But the oral vaccine also contains live virus, which has been implicated in perhaps eight cases of polio a year in the United States.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wants doctors to stop giving the oral polio vaccine Jan. 1. That's a fine idea.

The agency learned last month that an estimated 10 percent of pediatricians still use the oral vaccine, and that many of these physicians use the full four doses of oral serum, instead of two injections and two oral doses as a standard means of reducing risk.

Since the injected vaccine was developed in 1954, "wild" polio has just about disappeared in the United States. Some 3.5 million children get the polio vaccine each year.

The oral vaccine was developed as a user-friendly alternative in 1961. It's widely used in developing countries as an efficient means to curb polio. The proposed U.S. ban would not affect those public health immunization efforts.

Immunizations against polio and other devastating childhood diseases are probably the greatest health achievement of the 20th century. The challenge for the 21st century is to make them safer and more effective. Recognizing that benefits of the oral polio vaccine no longer outweigh the risks is an important step toward those goals.

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