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Polio Forgotten But Not Gone

Until the 1960s, poliomyelitis was a global epidemic. It was one of the most feared diseases of the 19th century. The virus had spread to the United States early in the century and, by 1952, there were 60,000 reported cases with 3,000 deaths. Worldwide, the disease affected over half a million people.

In the 1950s, a vaccination was discovered and was fully approved for use by the 1960s. Due to a coordinated effort of vaccinating children and high-risk populations, the disease was eliminated in the U.S. by 1979 and in the Western Hemisphere by 1991.

There are approximately 250,000 paralyzed survivors in the United States alone. In its most severe stage, polio can cause permanent paralysis in the limbs, throat or chest. Although only 1% of all cases results in paralysis, the damage to nerves can have long-lasting consequences even if the virus does not result in paralysis.

As of 2012, there are four countries where the disease is still endemic. Those include Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and Nigeria. In 1995, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India began an aggressive program to eradicate polio. The first phase was vaccination of all infants, and then all school-age children with door-to-door immunizations as needed in rural areas. As of February 2012, India has been removed from the list of endemic countries. It will remain under watch for another 2 years before it is considered free of the disease.

Pakistan has not had the same success. In March 2012, it was estimated that there are still over 400,000 children that have not been vaccinated. Despite a concerted effort to reach throughout the population, healthcare workers have been unable to reach children in outlying areas. Those who contract the virus pass it to other unvaccinated children and the epidemic continues at an alarming rate.

In Afghanistan, President Karzai has led his country in committing to a campaign aimed at eliminating polio. Five cases have been reported in 2012. Their greatest difficulty is that border traffic between Afghanistan and its neighbor, Pakistan, make isolating the disease nearly impossible.

Nigeria is seriously considering a law making it mandatory for all children to have the polio vaccine. The citizens have largely rejected a vaccination program due to cultural misconceptions. They believe that the vaccination is a method to control the population by foreign powers. Passing a law with a steep fine for noncompliance is one attempt to solve the continuing problem.

Eradicating this disease is a mission undertaken by the United Nations. If the remaining countries are able to meet that goal, we may see the end of a disease that has disabled thousands.

Living with Polio: The Epidemic and Its Survivors

Jonas Salk: Conquering Polio (Lerner Biographies)

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