Polio Eradication

photo credit: Global Polio Eradication Initiative

Polio Eradication

Polio, a viral disease that can cause paralysis and sometimes death, is on the cusp of becoming only the second disease to be eradicated from the world. Polio often spreads among dense populations amid poor sanitation, and occurs most frequently in the summer. Children under age five are the most vulnerable.

The Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) has driven a 99% reduction in polio cases during the last two decades, from nearly 350,000 cases in 1988 to fewer than 1,500 in 2010.  Improved vaccines and immunization programs have spurred the decline. Today, polio is endemic to only three countries: Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In the Western world, polio is a disease that has been largely relegated to history. Few remember a time in the US in the 1940s and 50s when fear of this crippling disease pervaded all pockets of society. Images of shuttered swimming pools and children in iron lungs and on crutches colored every mother’s daily worries. Outbreaks throughout Europe, North America and the rest of the world crippled tens of thousands of children at a time.

The discovery of an effective polio vaccine by Jonas Salk in 1955 gave the world hope against this terrible disease. Salk’s inactivated polio vaccine (IPV), along with Albert Sabin’s oral polio vaccine (OPV) discovery in 1963, have been key factors in global immunization efforts, bringing us closer than ever to complete eradication of polio.

This accomplishment is due in large part to the efforts and contributions of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative which was established in 1988. Spearheaded by Rotary International, the WHO, UNICEF and US CDC,—and other partners such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—GPEI has raised and donated nearly US$10 billion to the eradication cause and immunized 2.5 billion children since its inception.

However, the push for eradication has not been without roadblocks. Despite the work of immunization workers across the world, many children in endemic countries are still missed, allowing the polio virus to spread. Several large outbreaks have occurred in the Republic of the Congo, Tajikistan and Chad in recent years, stemming from transmission from endemic countries. We must continue to put pressure on the disease; the longer we wait, the greater the chance of an outbreak that undermines the entire eradication effort.

While new financial resources will be needed to fully fund the eradication program, these resources pale in comparison to the projected US$50 billion that the world would save when polio is eradicated.  The case is simple: one child with polio is one child too many.