The Approaching Elimination of Polio from the Planet
This week the Global Polio Eradication Initiative announced that the continent of Africa has seen no cases of polio in one year. http://www.polioeradication.org/
Polio is a quite distant memory for parents and children in America, as North America has been essentially polio free for decades. But as recently as 1988, over 350,000 children and adults were left permanently paralyzed by this disease every year. And prior to the invention of the polio immunization in the 1950's, this scourge terrified families and crippled children across America every summer. A simple look at any dime in your pocket will remind us that not only did one of our greatest presidents almost have his life ended by polio, but much of his heritage was defined by his commitment to combat this disease. FDR is on the dime because of his support of the great American anti-polio campaign, The March of Dimes.
The progress in Africa is in large measure the story of incredible public health work in Nigeria, where nearly every village developed teams to identify outbreaks, ensure community-wide immunization, and rapid deployment when outbreaks did occur. These same teams are the main reason the Ebola epidemics of West Africa failed to burn through Nigeria. The teams simply applied their same techniques to Ebola outbreaks, and contained the virus without shutting down borders or resorting to other panicky steps.
The experience of the appearance of Ebola virus infections in the United States in 2014 was a very sobering reminder that deadly infections are not entirely a thing of the past, and a tiny whiff of what dread a true deadly infectious disease epidemic can create.
And so it truly one of the greatest achievements of humanity that we have eliminated one of history's most cruel and destructive scourges, smallpox, and are poised to eliminate another, polio. As of this writing, the disease polio only occurs in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Nowhere else in the world. If all of the Americas, Europe, Australia, Africa, and the rest of Asia can remain polio free for several years, the disease will actually become extinct, as it can only live in humans. So, if no humans get the illness, the virus will vanish from the planet, no one else will ever be able to get polio.
I find this prospect inspiring on at least two levels. First is the most obvious, to think that one of history's greatest tragic plagues could actually be completely eliminated is plenty cause for celebration. But, I will also add that at a time when we wonder just how badly people can treat each other, it is remarkable that humanity actually devoted the time, money, ingenuity to this cause, persevered over decades, and actually achieved this triumph. Eliminating polio will not make anyone all that rich, it will deliver no power to any individual or group or nation. There are no benefits that seem to have come to define why great powers do things. And yet we, yes all of humanity, did this. We supported polio immunization research efforts through governmental support, we took our children to the doctor to get polio immunizations, we cheered the progress of its elimination. We created agencies such as the CDC and World Health Organization to keep the work going and get the job done. The elimination of polio, therefore, will not be the result of one scientist's discovery, or one wealthy man's foundation, but the concerted and coordinated efforts of all the nations of the world, and the billions of families who live on this planet. Together, we are on the very verge of eliminating a virus that paralyzed millions of children a year for many centuries, extraordinary.
This also means, that once polio is eliminated from Pakistan and Afghanistan and held to be eliminated across the rest of the world, for some number of years to be sure it is gone, polio immunization will no longer be needed or done. But not quite yet. It will take 5-10 years of a planet free of polio to end polio immunization. In the meantime, maintaining polio immunity will be something every family can do to bring us all the way to this great triumph of the human spirit, and towards a world free of needless, crippling, polio.
To your health,
Dr. Arthur Lavin
Dr. Arthur Lavin
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