Friday, July 29, 2016

Tightening the noose around the polio virus

The world moved a step closer to eradicating polio, a sometimes fatal crippling disease that killed or paralyzed half a million people per year in the middle of the 20th Century. 

Today, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, GPEI, announced that July marked two full years with no cases of polio caused by the wild polio virus. This is a major milestone in the ongoing campaign to clear Africa, and soon the whole world, of the polio virus.

Compared to hundreds of thousands of cases not long ago, so far this year there have been only 19 polio cases worldwide, limited to two war-torn countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Within a few years, we may completely eradicate polio, and free the world's children and their parents from this devastating disease forever. The only other human disease that we have been able to eradicate is smallpox, after an enormous international effort completed in 1979.

Children in Iron Lung ventilators
Rancho Los Amigos Hospital
Downey, California, 1953

This near-eradication of polio has been possible due to the existence of two effective polio vaccines, starting with the inactivated polio virus vaccine developed by Jonas Salk in 1952, administered by injections, and followed by a weakened virus vaccine that could be delivered by mouth, developed by Albert Sabin and widely used starting in 1961.

Most of the global eradication program has relied on the weakened-virus oral vaccine, which is less expensive and easier to administer than the killed-virus injectable vaccine. However, in rare cases the inactivated virus can mutate back to a disease-causing form. As a result, the last stages in eradicating polio will require a switch back to injections.

Funding for the multi-billion dollar eradication program comes from a variety of national, international and private sources. Rotary International deserves special praise for spearheading this effort starting in 1985.

Experts at the Global Polio Eradication Initiative hope to overcome the final obstacles and wipe polio our completely within the next few years.