The natural history of an infectious disease: MacFarlane Burnet’s contribution to the epidemiology of poliomyelitis

Colin L Crawford
Med J Aust 2011; 194 (12): . || doi: 10.5694/j.1326-5377.2011.tb03172.x
Published online: 20 June 2011

To the Editor: In Natural history of infectious disease,1 Macfarlane Burnet emphasised that poliomyelitis was the one infective disease of advanced countries that had failed to respond to improvements in the standard of living, leading to epidemics in the first half of the 20th century that increasingly involved young adults, who developed severe paralyses. There was also an abnormally high death rate among young adults. However, in tropical countries where the poliovirus was endemic, the virus spread among infants “with a minimal number of paralytic cases”. Burnet therefore defined a “safe” period in the first year of life, when infection was not likely to lead to paralysis.

  • London, UK.


  • 1. Burnet FM, White DO. Susceptibility and resistance. In: Natural history of infectious disease. 4th ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972: 88-104.
  • 2. Modlin JF. The bumpy road to polio eradication. N Engl J Med 2010; 362: 2346-2349.
  • 3. Crawford CL. Epidemics of poliomyelitis in Africa since 1993. Clin Infect Dis 2009; 48: 1329-1330.
  • 4. Anderson RM, May RM. Microparasites. Static aspects of eradication and control. In: Infectious diseases of humans: dynamics and control. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991: 87-121.
  • 5. Zinkernagel RM. Maternal antibodies, childhood infections and autoimmune diseases. N Engl J Med 2001; 345: 1331-1335.
  • 6. Burnet FM. Men or molecules? A tilt at molecular biology. Lancet 1966; 1: 37-39.


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