The date is August 24. The year is 1960. A vaccine for polio is licensed for use in the United States for the first time. Nineteen years later, after a widespread campaign for immunization, the disease is completely eliminated from the U.S.
The year is 1988. The United Nation’s World Health Assembly has launched a campaign to eradicate polio globally. During that year there were 350,000 cases of polio. By 2012, that number dropped to 223. It was a disease that scourged millions. For the first time since the eradication of small pox, we had the power to eradicate a disease from the entire planet that has affected human beings, sometimes leading to paralysis and death, for thousands of years.
Despite a few sporadic cases elsewhere, the disease was mostly contained to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria. However, in 2013, two years into the Syrian Civil War, polio reappeared in Syria for the first time in 15 years. And now, for the first time since before mass vaccination efforts began, the disease is now gaining ground.
Recording an exact number of cases is tricky, particularly in a war zone, but several sources on the ground in Syria place the number above 100. The World Health Organization has taken a more conservative stance at around 25, but any number of cases could have devastating global consequences.
Polio spreads rapidly, but most who contract it never show any symptoms. Instead, they remain carriers for the duration that the disease incubates in their body. Therefore, doctors suggest that for every one symptomatic case, there could be 200 people infected.
Some estimates are much higher. With that in mind, we don’t need exact numbers to know that any number of new documented polio cases is a threat.
According to the U.N., during the course of the Syrian Civil War approximately 2.5 million refugees have fled Syria to neighboring countries. These countries are mainly Syria’s immediate neighbors; Turkey, Iraq, Jordon and Lebanon. With so many people fleeing Syria, polio could spread with them, and what was once a national crisis could become a regional one in much the same way the war itself has spread to other countries.
And in a world as globalized as ours, the potential impact of this resurgence could reverberate to the U.S.
This scenario is an immediate and physical example of how what happens outside our borders and across oceans has a direct impact on American lives. In times of war, formerly robust food and medical facilities often shut down, sometimes as collateral damage, at other times as a means to intentionally damage an enemy. But under any circumstances, when disease spreads, nobody wins. The year is 2014, and we are now in danger of revisiting a disease that we came within the final steps of eradicating a few short years ago.
– Julian Mostachetti
Sources: ABC News(1), ABC News(2), BBC, The History of Vaccines, Migration Policy Centre, New York Books