The trip through rural Spain that ended polio in Spain

The poliomyelitis went from causing more than 2,000 cases annually in 1960 to 62 cases in 1965 in Spain, thanks to the National campaign for oral polio vaccination. Devised by the doctor Florencio Pérez Gallardo, which carried out the epidemiological and virological investigations, We started the vaccination in León on May 14, 1963, reaching, in itineraries with which we traveled throughout the province, all children from three months to seven years.

In those days, polio created panic in the population of the most advanced countries and that led to a great effort in basic research (Nobel Prize in 1954 to Enders, Weller and Robbins) and applied, with the development of the Salk (inactivated, dead) and Sabin (attenuated, live) vaccines.

The Sabin vaccine, highly effective and administered in a very simple way, orally, led quickly to the elimination of the disease and its terrible consequences in many countries of the world.

In Spain, the work of Dr. Florencio Pérez Gallardo and his nucleus of young collaborators provided the necessary knowledge to propose, now 58 years ago, a universal coverage vaccination campaign for susceptible age groups: the Pilot Campaign. This served to dramatically lower the levels of paralysis and deaths and paved the way for their elimination in Spain.

Minimal resources

The resources available to us would seem ridiculous today, but with them it was possible to eliminate one of the most terrible health problems of the moment. Unfortunately, the lack of the necessary support meant that what could have been completed in a few years was delayed longer than desirable.

From the beginning, when living fundamentally with many mothers and their children, I perceived a rapprochement between people from the same family who had been estranged for years and for whom contact with their children established a desire for solidarity, which made them come closer. It was a new and endearing feeling.

We arrived at places that seemed incredible at the time, such as the region of La Cabrera, in León, which had been nominated to join the Royal Board of Las Hurdes but, when rejected, was totally abandoned.

The deaths were ‘testimonial’: they were recorded when the spring thaw allowed to circumvent the mountain passes and approach the towns with Civil Registry, as in the case of Truchas.

I lived experiences that we could consider ‘medieval’, such as perceiving that time was counting on parameter ‘grandfather-grandson’. An old man in Las Médulas told me in all seriousness that his grandparents had worked with the Romans and that they were “very bad.”

In Cain I lived the drama of the most terrible migration, crossing the mountain through incredible paths until I reached a brutally unknown world, but which lit a flame of hope.

The lessons learned

The anti-polio campaigns introduced in Spain, among other things, the concept of total coverage for all children, which gave way to the implementation of vaccination schedules that, adopted by the health authorities and accepted by the population, have led to the control of many infectious diseases.

Another consequence of the success of the Vaccination Pilot Campaign was the creation in Spain of the first research institute on diseases caused by viruses, the National Center for Virology and Health Ecology, based in Majadahonda and where, in addition to continuing studies on polio and other enteroviruses, studies were carried out on respiratory and exanthematic viruses, such as influenza, measles, rubella and mumps, which led to the implantation of the corresponding vaccines.

In the case of influenza, as the National Influenza Center of the World Health Organization (WHO), it began the surveillance of this disease and of the new variants that were naturally selected by mutation or by genetic mixtures, causing pandemics.

In short, the teachings of that time allow us to reflect on the best use of resources, generally scarce, and the value of the human factor that must strive to generate confidence in the population to achieve the most efficient response to any situation.

Often times, limited resources well used can provide amazing results. Today, many situations in the face of covid-19 make me reflect on the dedication and heroism of so many anonymous fighters of essential jobs, both health and social support, as necessary as the first.

I want to dedicate this small but sincere memory to them.


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