Dr Dora Vargha

Research interests

My recently completed book manuscript, Polio Across the Iron Curtain: Hungary's Cold War with an Epidemic uses the series of polio epidemics in communist Hungary to investigate a global public health emergency in the midst of an international political crisis. In this book, I argue that due to the particularities of polio, unique spaces of cooperation opened between antagonistic sides while Cold War concepts simultaneously influenced policies and practices of disease prevention and treatment. Based on extensive archival material, medical and popular literature, hospital documents, memoirs and oral history interviews the book analyses the history of polio in Hungary at multiple registers. On an international level, it asks how Cold War divisions can be re-evaluated when viewed through the lens of a disease that disregarded borders and ideologies. On a national level, the book investigates how post-war societies and nascent political systems dealt with an epidemic that worked against their modernist projects. On an individual level, it raises questions about definitions of treatment, authority of care and investigates the boundary between professional and lay knowledge.

My current project highlights the roles of international professional networks in shaping the agendas of international organizations such as the WHO. Through the story of experiments and campaigns with the live poliovirus vaccine spanning four continents, this research explores the roots of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. Analyzing vaccine trials and vaccination campaigns from the Brazil through Singapore to Czechoslovakia and Poland, I investigate Cold War politics, post-colonial power struggles and commercial interests in the rivalry of competing scientists, and the rise of the Sabin vaccine as the ultimate technology of eradication. 

My research on polio has brought me to think about the temporality and geography of disease more broadly. Polio as a disease seems to challenge conventional frameworks within which we think about when epidemics are happening and where public health policies, medical innovation and interventions take place. My research critically addresses these categories and dislocates geographies and narratives of disease and health. I am exploring ways to think about international and global public health outside of the framework of Geneva and US-based NGOs; and to question straightforward scripts of beginnings, crises and endings when it comes to disease. 

A research project on the shaky beginnings of the World Health Organization, namely the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe leaving the agency within the first years of its existence examines some of these issues. Apart from exploring a crucial event in the history of global public health and of international organizations, the Eastern European story of being in and out of the WHO points to broader issues of international – and global – health in the Cold War era. Health played an important part in the unfolding Cold War in two, contradicting ways. Ideology, vaccines, disease and international relations were inextricably linked during the Cold War. Metaphors of medicine and health framed the era in terms of ‘containment’ and ‘infection’, and were often mobilised in diplomatic and economic interactions between the West and the communist East. At the same time, the proclaimed universality of health and the perceived neutrality of science provided spaces for cooperation across opposing sides. Both of these Cold War interpretations of disease and health proved to be fundamental in shaping post war international public health, as the 1950s shows, in surprisingly compatible ways.




Research collaborations

I am member of The Reluctant Internationalists research group, led by Jessica Reinisch at Birkbeck, University of London. This Wellcome Trust-funded project studies the history of public health and international organizations, the movement of experts and knowledge in twentieth century Europe. Furthermore, I have been working on a collaborative project on access to global pharmaceuticals in the post-vaccination era with Jeremy Greene at Johns Hopkins University.