Risking their lives to wipe out polio forever

Polio remains endemic in just two countries, Pakistan and Afghanistan.  A  disease is considered endemic if it is common among a particular people or region.

Tragically, these two nations are among the most dangerous for brave health care workers who are fighting to eradicate polio.

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If polio is wiped out, it will be the second disease ever eradicated, after smallpox.

World leaders met at their biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting to discuss the global effort to eradicate polio.

The Commonwealth Network represents over fifty nations.

The Terror of Polio

Polio, or poliomyelitis, is a crippling and potentially deadly infectious disease. It is caused by the poliovirus.

The virus spreads from person to person and can invade an infected person’s brain and spinal cord, causing paralysis.polio snip

Paralysis is the most severe symptom associated with polio because it can lead to permanent disability and death.  Between 2 and 10 out of 100 people who have paralysis from poliovirus infection die because the virus affects the muscles that help them breathe.

Even children who seem to fully recover can develop new muscle pain, weakness, or paralysis as adults, 15 to 40 years later.  This is called post-polio syndrome.

Polio in the U.S.

Sixty years ago, polio was one of the most feared diseases in the U.S.

As the weather warmed up each year, panic over polio intensified. Late summer was dubbed “polio season.” polio child

Public swimming pools were shut down. Movie theaters urged patrons not to sit too close together to avoid spreading the disease. Insurance companies started selling polio insurance for newborns.

The fear was well grounded. By the 1950s, polio had become one of the most serious communicable diseases among children in the United States.polio feature

In 1952 alone, nearly 60,000 children were infected with the virus; thousands were paralyzed, and more than 3,000 died.

Hospitals set up special units with iron lung machines to keep polio victims alive. Rich kids as well as poor were left paralyzed.

U.S. polio ward full of iron lungs
U.S. polio ward full of iron lungs

Then in 1955, the U.S. began widespread vaccinations.

By 1979, the virus had been completely eliminated across the country.

Most of the world is now polio-free

Commonwealth member states have been at the center of recent progress against the disease.

In 2014, India was certified polio-free after marking three years without a case of polio, an achievement considered by many to be the greatest to date in public health.

One year later, in September 2015, Nigeria – Africa’s last country to stop the disease – was removed from the list of polio-endemic countries.

Now just two countries – Pakistan and Afghanistan – remain endemic.

A young polio victim receives treatment in Kabul, Afghanistan
A young polio victim receives treatment in Kabul, Afghanistan

Commonwealth member state Pakistan accounted for nearly 90% of the world’s polio cases in 2014.  However, the country has made noteworthy gains in 2015, reducing its case count by more than 80% since this same time last year.

The 2011 CHOGM meeting saw the Commonwealth call for “accelerating action and financial support to eradicate polio.”

At that time, the world had four countries that had never stopped the disease–India, Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan.polio snip 2

Thanks in part to the investment and commitment of Commonwealth nations the number of countries still experiencing transmission of the disease has been halved.

Commonwealth member states have invested more than three billion dollars, and provided leadership in support of global polio eradication.  The United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and India in particular have been longtime supporters of the initiative.

Polio Vaccines

Polio vaccine protects children by preparing their bodies to fight the polio virus. Almost all children (99 children out of 100) who get all the recommended doses of vaccine will be protected from polio.

Pakistan health care worker marks an infant in Lahore after giving oral vaccine
Pakistan health care worker marks an infant in Lahore after giving oral vaccine

There are two types of vaccine that can prevent polio–inactivated poliovirus vaccine (IPV) which is given by injection, and oral poliovirus vaccine (OPV).

Only IPV has been used in the United States since 2000; OPV is still used throughout much of the world.

Dedicated health care workers risk their lives to treat and prevent polio in the darkest and deadliest corners in the world today.

Let us pray for them.

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(More information at EndPolio.org and the CDC Global Health)

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