There have been repeated claims that one of the causes of the rising tide of multiple sclerosis (MS) cases is somehow related to polio vaccinations. This idea has been championed by the brilliant Greek homeopath George Vithoulkas. His hypothesis is that the reduction in paralysis from polio appears to parallel a rise in the incidence of MS, and that it is polio vaccine that is to blame. There are many websites repeating the claim that polio vaccinations are the cause of many illnesses.
Is there actually any evidence for this?
I’ve look at several hundred papers in all the languages that I can read, and this is what I think so far.
It is certainly true that people who already have MS may become worse after some types of vaccination.
There have been very occasional reports of children developing an MS type of illness after vaccination, but probably only in children who were genetically predisposed.
There have been a number of studies on polio vaccination and MS. Most with only small numbers of individuals, but the only link seems to be that people with MS tended to have their vaccinations at an older age.
Many of the best epidemiological studies come from Scandinavia, where there are often superb medical records, and little mobility of the population. One study done in Denmark looked not at vaccination, but instead examined data on every person in Copenhagen diagnosed with polio between 1919 and 1954. They found that there was a slightly increased risk of eventually developing MS. This is very difficult research to do well, since the symptoms of the two conditions so often overlap.
There have only been a handful of well-executed independent studies and they have failed to find a link between vaccination and type 1 diabetes, MS or inflammatory bowel disease.
There do seem to be some unusual cases in which autoimmune phenomena have been clearly related to immunization, such as the neurological illness Guillain-Barre syndrome. But they are clearly uncommon. This also provides evidence against some ingredient in the vaccines being the problem.
Another approach has been to look at the poliovirus receptor gene, and again the findings failed to find a role of the gene in the development of MS.
As an aside, there does not seem to be a link between vaccination against hepatitis B and MS, though there have undoubtedly been occasional case in which the illness started after vaccination, and there remains a nagging concern about a possible association. The question always is the extent to which the vaccination could have caused the problem. The fact is that in complex biological systems there is hardly ever one cause for one effect.
On the evidence currently available the polio vaccine/MS hypothesis is not supported.
And I wonder how many readers remember kids with leg braces and iron lungs? Polio can be a nasty illness and I would hate to see it return to countries that have eradicated it.