Oct. 24 is designated as World Polio Day. This day celebrates a triumph of modern medicine, specifically the success of a vaccination campaign, as we near global eradication of this deadly disease. The eradication of polio has been an effort to contain and eliminate three distinct strains of the polio virus. In 1988, there were more than 300,000 cases of polio worldwide. In the last six years, two of the three strains have been completely eradicated. The only remaining strain, accounting for the 103 confirmed cases of polio in 2019, is only found in remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The journey that brings us to the verge of global eradication of polio has been hard and arduous. Polio has ravaged humanity for the past two millennia. There is evidence of polio afflicted individuals in the mummified remains recovered from the Pyramids of Egypt and there are grim reminders of outbreaks documented in the histories of Europe and the Americas over the centuries.
In 1915, the Rockefeller Institute discovered “shiny, darting particles,” which were subsequently identified as the polio virus. Polio outbreaks usually happened in the late summer and fall, with outbreaks overlapping seasons with for common childhood viruses. What started with symptoms of a stomach virus often ended with children becoming paralyzed from the waist down and sometimes requiring "iron lungs" for respiratory support. The children who were fortunate enough to survive their illness were often treated in quarantined units and required periods of prolonged isolation. As a parent myself, it is easy to understand the anxiety and fear that a virus of this nature could impart upon a family. Thankfully, during the 1950s, the inactivated polio vaccination and the oral polio vaccine were both developed in the United States. Massive immunization campaigns throughout the 1980s eventually resulted in the eradication of polio from the western world.
Rotary International has played a vital role in the near eradication of polio from the rest of the globe. The first 3H project was launched in 1979, immunizing more than 6 million children in the Philippines. In 1985, Rotary International launched the Polio Plus program, which added immunizations against other vaccine-preventable illnesses to their vaccination campaigns in developing countries. Since the launch of the Polio plus program in 1985, Rotary International has contributed $2 billion dollars towards polio eradication. Rotary International began fundraising efforts for the Polio Plus program in 1988, and exceeded goals by such amounts that the World Health Assembly was inspired to launch a Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) with the intention of eradicating polio worldwide. Partners of the GPEI include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, CDC, WHO, UNICEF, and Rotary International. Collectively, these organizations have immunized more than 2.5 billion children against polio across 122 countries. Successes of these efforts are reflected in India becoming certified as polio free in 2014 and the entire continent of Africa in 2020.
Today, we are in the midst of a global COVID-19 pandemic, which has claimed almost one million lives worldwide. Unfortunately, the recent pandemic has also led to a significant drop in childhood immunization rates in our country. We are at risk of seeing a resurgence in numbers of highly contagious vaccine-preventable illnesses that we had become privileged enough to no longer fear. Recent outbreaks of infections and deaths from measles — believed to have been eliminated from the United States in 2000 — serve as a cautionary reminder. I urge parents and caregivers to continue vaccinating their children during these times and to discuss specific concerns with their child's physician.
The same message applies for ensuring success in our goal of completely eliminating polio. We need to diligently continue surveillance and immunization efforts in the known areas of outbreaks in the developing world. This virus knows no national boundaries and is only a flight away from the shores of our nation.
Rakesh Sachdeva, M.D. FAAP is the Founding Chair of the Division of Pediatrics at University of Pikeville Kentucky College of Osteopathic Medicine and served as Rotary International District Governor for D-6740 in 2008-2009. He practices with Physicians and Children and Adolescents in Pikeville, Kentucky.