Why you should care
Polio is on the cusp of being eradicated worldwide, but an outbreak in Syria is cause for concern.
Polio was one of the most feared diseases of the 20th century, with repeated epidemics that crippled thousands across the world. The rampant disease affected people from every country and social class, up to and including the president of the United States. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, polio’s most famous victim, contracted the disease when he was 39. However, one of the most frightening features of polio, a highly contagious intestinal infection, is that it predominantly affects children and can cause irreversible paralysis.
Cases of paralytic polio recorded in 2012
Cases of paralytic polio recorded so far in 2013
Annual cases of paralytic polio prior to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative’s launch in 1988
Today there are only a few hundred cases reported each year but the disease remains a threat. World Polio Day, taking place on October 24, aims to raise awareness of the persistence of the disease in certain regions and advocate for the worldwide elimination of polio.
Polio-free countries in the world
Countries where polio has never stopped circulating
Source: End Polio Now
The Gates Foundation, Rotary International, WHO, UNICEF and others have gathered under the umbrella of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI). The movement has been incredibly successful. When GPEI was launched in 1988, up to 1,000 children were paralyzed by polio every day. By 2012, the annual incidence had dropped to fewer than 250 cases. Most industrialized countries are completely polio free and, due to comprehensive immunization programs, they are likely to stay that way. Paralytic polio has not been identified in the U.S. since 1979.
Price of an oral polio vaccine
Children vaccinated since 1988
Increasing vaccination rates is the only guaranteed way of targeting polio, which may not be curable but it is preventable. The oral polio vaccine (OPV) can be quickly and cheaply administered, and immunization methods include door-to-door drives, setting up vaccination stations at borders and encouraging vaccination by giving toys to children who receive the OPV. That said, universal immunization is politically and logistically complex — and quite expensive. It requires a concerted effort by governments, health-care workers, international organizations, religious leaders and the affected communities.
Polio remains endemic in three countries — Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria — and outbreaks continue in the surrounding regions, particularly in the African “importation belt.” Unless polio is completely eradicated, there is a constant threat of resurgence. This week, it has been confirmed that polio has broken out in Syria for the first time since 1999. Twenty-two people have been identified with symptoms but, as 99.5 percent of polio cases are asymptomatic, hundreds are likely to be infected. The outbreak is being attributed to the breakdown of health care and immunization services during the civil war.
Polio eradication efforts in Pakistan are also endangered by political conflict; the Taliban has banned polio vaccinations in regions it controls and vaccine providers have been violently targeted. Many local leaders are suspicious of vaccines, and their fears were exacerbated by the revelation that in 2011 the U.S. used a fake vaccination team to gather intelligence on Osama Bin Laden.
Rate of polio vaccination in Syria in 2010
Rate of polio vaccination in Syria in 2013
Based on the successes of the past 20 years, it’s entirely plausible that polio could soon go the way of smallpox. Bill Gates believes that eradication could be achieved by 2018. But instability and rising infection rates in Syria, Pakistan, Somalia and elsewhere are troubling reminders that victory is far from certain.