The near-eradication of polio is one of the most important and amazing health developments in history. That’s because there is no cure to this crippling and potentially fatal infectious disease, so stopping it requires full-scale prevention through immunization. That effort spares individuals from suffering from the disease and shows what communities, nations and the world can achieve when we work together.
The situation was much different just 100 short years ago. During the early 20th century, polio was one of the first major epidemics to take hold in rapidly industrializing nations. In the U.S., for example, about 27,000 polio cases were reported, nearly one-third in New York City alone. In 1938, polio survivor President Franklin Roosevelt founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, popularly known as the March of Dimes, to raise money to develop a polio vaccine and help rehabilitate those crippled by the disease. Dr. Jonas Salk developed the first vaccine declared to be safe and effective in 1955; less than a decade later, Dr. Albert Sabin successfully tested an oral version. A global effort to eradicate polio was under way.
In 1994, the Western Hemisphere was certified polio-free, followed in 2000 by the Western Pacific region, spanning Australia to China. Other nations, including India – long considered the most difficult place in the world to end polio given its huge population and, in many areas, poverty – announced their last cases of the disease in the years that followed.
Imagine: An entire planet free of a dangerous, dreaded disease is within our grasp. Sadly, it’s too early for that celebration. In recent years, violence in some nations, including Pakistan and Nigeria where health workers were targeted and attacked, has dealt a blow to immunization efforts. In October (the month when World Polio Day occurs, on Oct. 24), the World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed cases of polio in Syria for the first time in 14 years; before its civil war started in 2011, that nation had one of the best polio vaccination rates in the Middle East. As a planet we can’t let our guard down on this disease in any nation: Israel, for example, launched a massive immunization campaign in August after the polio virus was discovered in its sewers.
In April of this year, international health leaders at the Global Vaccine Summit unveiled a $5.5 billion plan of the WHO and other partners, including private donors, to end polio by 2018. That would be an extraordinary medical and humanitarian achievement and inspiration for fighting other diseases.
Will we make that goal?