Most people have heard of polio (poliomyelitis), but only the older generation has seen the effects of this crippling disease. The polio virus primarily affected young children as it struck the nervous system and caused severe muscle weakness and spread person-to-person causing paralysis and even death. Only those growing up in the 1950’s remember lining up at school, by class, to take the first vaccine in a shot form.
Before Dr. Jonas Salk discovered the very first polio vaccine in 1955, polio was considered incurable. Families and children lived in fear of getting polio and being disfigured, placed in an iron lung or destined to a life on crutches or in a wheelchair. A few years later, Dr. Albert Sabin, put a weakened version of the vaccine in a sugar cube that proved effective. Of course, children preferred this method of the delivery of the vaccine. Recent research shows the vaccine in shot form is recommended as it is less likely to be contaminated.
In the 1930’s my uncle, who was a toddler at the time, was diagnosed with Infantile Paralysis, the previous name for poliomyelitis. Though he became a productive human being, he spent his life with the challenges of being severely crippled. Later, when polio came to the forefront in American life, my family, like many others, feared this awful disease would strike their children. There was the added fear because 70% of polio victims were asymptomatic and often weren’t discovered until it was too late. There was no question in this era as to whether their children would be immunized.
Polio became a worldwide epidemic. More than 350,000 children have been crippled by the disease. Rotary International stepped in and joined forces with the Global Polio Eradication Initiative in eliminating 99.9% of polio since 1979, vaccinating nearly 3 billion children in 122 countries. Rotary International played a major role in getting countries to contribute more than $10 billion to the Initiative, which included $2 billion from Rotary International members.
By 2017, 430 million children in 39 countries had been vaccinated against polio for an average of $3 per vaccine. However, the cost to conduct worldwide polio survellience is $100 million.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have poured in tens of millions of dollars into polio surveillance and vaccine creation world wide. Afghanistan and Pakistan are among the only nations where polio spread remains uncontrolled. There were 415 cases in Nigeria last year.
Polio was considered to be the first disease to be eradicated from the United States and in most countries until recently. On September 9, 2022, the governor of the State of New York declared a state of emergency over polio as evidence emerged that the virus is spreading across the state in areas where vaccination rates were low.
According to Dr. Shira Doron, an infectious disease physician and hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center, “Those who have received all of their childhood vaccinations, and children who are up-to-date on their routing vaccinations, don’t need to worry about contracting paralytic polio-or seek a booster of the vaccine.” She added, “The routine childhood vaccination regiment in the U.S. consists of 4 doses of an inactivated polio vaccine . . .three doses are considered 99 to 100% effective against paralytic polio.”
Though polio primarily strikes children, adults are not immuned. However, boosters are not recommended for adults who were fully vaccinated as children.
The terrible disease of polio does not have to make a comeback, crippling and killing our children and grandchildren. We can ensure that the disease so feared in the 20th Century does not repeat itself.
As Rotarians, we can continue to help eradicate polio by spreading the word about vaccines to our friends and families and by informing others of the need to fully vaccinate their children.