Infected with Polio from the Polio Vaccine: How Could This Happen?

Recently I re watched one of my favourite documentaries of all time called Jabbed. It’s an hour and a half all about vaccines with explanations of how they work, various stories of families with problems surrounding the fight against vaccination and plenty of history of vaccination. But one particular story within the documentary has stuck with me over the years.

What’s the story?

David Salamone, a young man from Virginia in the United States. At the time of filming he was 22 and in the film he spoke out for the first time about contracting the polio disease from the polio vaccine when he was just 6 months old. 

In the film, David’s parents explained how they took their infant son for his routine vaccination, and in the following 24 hours watched as their son developed a high fever, a severe rash, and eventually paralysis in his lower limbs.

The following years saw David stuck in a cycle of getting sick, being prescribed antibiotics, getting better and getting sick again. No one could work out why this had happened to David, until one doctor connected the dots when David was 3 years old. But we will get to that later.

What do I mean by “live virus”?

Here’s a bit of background for you about vaccinations. We are not born naturally immune to every disease in the world, we have to build up our own immunity to the diseases we come in to contact with. Sometimes, those diseases are so vicious that we don’t have time to build immunity and survive before they kill us. These are usually childhood diseases such as measles and polio.

A child receiving the oral polio vaccine (OPV). By USAID Bangladesh via Wikimedia Commons

The reason we use vaccines is to give people immunity without putting them in danger of dying from the disease. Vaccines usually contain an “attenuated” (modified) version of the disease causing bacteria or virus, or even a dead one, so that the body can recognise the disease and build immunity.

Sometimes, a vaccine has a “live virus” in it. This means that scientists have used a weaker strain of a disease for the vaccination, which they know the body can fight with little to no problems. There is a small chance that this weak strain can mutate in the body into a strong version of the virus. In the case of the oral polio vaccine, the chance is 1 in 2.4 million.

So what happened to David?

It appears that David was born with only half of his immune system. This is a condition called Bruton’s disease, meaning he can’t produce antibodies against diseases, meaning he can’t gain immunity to anything. Since the oral polio vaccine was a live virus, it means he was effectively given polio, and had no defence against it.

Aside from the many complications of having no defense against disease, the polio caused caused his right leg to atrophy. This meant David had to wear a brace on his leg, and had difficulty walking.

This physical therapist is assisting two polio-stricken children holding on to a rail while they exercise their lower limbs (1963). They are both wearing braces on their legs, like David has to. By CDC/Charles Farmer via Wikimedia Commons

The reason why it took doctors so long to diagnose David is because none of those doctors had ever seen a case of polio. This is because it was effectively eradicated. The only cases presented in the USA had been caused by the oral polio vaccine. This is why in late 1999 the USA switched to the safer vaccine, an injectable vaccine with a dead version of the poliovirus. The UK and Australia followed a few years later.