2018 marks the 30-year anniversary of the first international effort to eradicate polio. Polio has been one of the most-feared illnesses throughout history and has recurred in epidemics since the beginning of recorded medicinal history. Over time, the effort to eradicate polio has become exponentially more effective, with a total of only 14 confirmed cases in 2017. But that effort did not begin until 1988, and the vaccine for the virus was created only 30 years earlier in 1954.
Polio epidemics became extremely visible when President Franklin Roosevelt contracted the virus in 1921, while he was still working as the vice president of a bonding company. He created the Warm Springs Foundation, a polio rehabilitation center, in 1927 and spurred further efforts for rehabilitation.
Now iconic and obsolete, the iron lung was the next major rehabilitation tool created in 1929. Because polio causes muscle paralysis, many sufferers of the virus became unable to breathe due to respiratory paralysis. The iron lung provided breathing assistance to those whose illness had progressed far enough to need it.
However, it was not until after Roosevelt died in 1945 that a polio research project was founded. Dr. Jonas Salk was the head of the research project in 1947, which yielded the very first successful polio vaccine six years later in 1953.
After two years of field trials, the vaccine was declared a success. Between 1955 and 1957 alone, the incidence rate of polio dropped by 85 percent. It continued to drop further once Salk’s vaccine was replaced by a more cost-effective and easily-distributed vaccine.
In 1985, the Rotary Fund initiated the PolioPlus program, a movement to immunize all children worldwide against polio. Three years later, in 1988, the WHO, CDC, UNICEF and Pan American Health Organization banded together with the Rotary Fund to launch an international immunization campaign and the official effort to eradicate polio.
When the immunization campaign was launched in 1988, there was an estimated total of 350,000 cases of polio. By 1994, the Americas were declared polio-free, and by the year 2000 the incidence rate of polio was down 99 percent, and the western Pacific was also declared polio-free.
As of 2017, only three countries in the world continue to experience endemic polio infections: Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria. Children under the age of five have the highest risk of contracting the illness because many are too young to receive the full course of vaccinations. According to the WHO, “as long as a single child remains infected with poliovirus, children in all countries are at risk of contracting the disease.” Because these three countries have lower rates of immunization throughout their populations, they are at higher risk of spreading the disease and letting it cross their borders
The Rotary Foundation’s effort to eradicate polio has become 99 percent effective, but the remaining 1 percent poses a risk to the entire world. Through education, mobilization and donation, the effort to eradicate polio becomes stronger every day.
– Anna Sheps