Syringes and Sugarcubes: Polio Prevention in Cold War Europe from a Hungarian Perspective

Sunday, January 5, 2014: 8:50 AM
Columbia Hall 10 (Washington Hilton)
Dora Vargha, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science
On July 13, 1957, a West German pilot arrived to Budapest, Hungary. Flying in from Denmark, his Swiss airplane was carrying precious cargo: polio vaccine developed in the United States, manufactured in Canada. High officials of the communist regime shook the hands of the Western hero upon arrival and thanked his efforts in the name of Hungarian mothers. In a global cooperation uncharacteristic to the Cold War years, the hope of stopping polio was becoming a reality.

Like in many other places of the world, polio epidemics hit Hungary more severely than ever before in the 1950s. Working against communist ideals of physical work and bright future, a disease that caused permanent disability in children received special attention from the nascent communist state – sometimes overwriting the regime’s own Cold War agendas. Vaccination was introduced in Hungary in the summer of 1957 with the Salk and in 1959 the Sabin vaccines, the former coming from the West, the latter arriving from the East.

The paper looks at the implementation of the Salk and Sabin vaccines in communist Hungary and places it in the context of polio vaccine introduction in Western and Eastern European countries (namely Spain, Britain, Denmark, the Netherlands, West Germany, Czechoslovakia and Poland). Through a comparative analysis, the paper argues that that polio prevention efforts and Cold War policies influenced and shaped each other significantly. On the one hand, the threat of polio and concern for children's health created a safe place for hitherto unprecedented, open cooperation among governments and scientific communities on the two sides of the Iron Curtain. On the other hand, on a global level Cold War rhetoric influenced scientific evaluation of vaccines, choices of disease prevention and ultimately, the eradication of polio.