Thursday marks World Polio Day, established to commemorate Jonas Salk’s development of an effective vaccine to combat the deadly disease. Polio, which mainly strikes children under the age of five and causes paralysis that can ultimately be fatal, has no cure. Salk’s vaccine has allowed the global health community to virtually eradicate it in most parts of the world.
But polio isn’t gone for good. The virus continues to spread in Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, where most people don’t receive vaccinations against the crippling disease.
That’s because efforts to increase vaccination rates there have been met with violence. After the CIA set up a fake polio vaccination program in Pakistan to gather intelligence about Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts, Islamist militant groups have been wary of any health campaigns that are targeting rural communities. They’ve attacked the health workers in those countries, forcing the Red Cross and the United Nations to put their efforts to fight polio on pause.
Three new polio cases were confirmed in Pakistan today, even as the world marks the progress that’s been made to eliminate the disease.
Perhaps even more troubling, however, is the fact that polio appears to be re-emerging in Syria. Twenty two suspected cases have been reported in the eastern part of the country, the first time that polio has been documented in Syria over the past 14 years. Even though Syria’s vaccination rate was about 95 percent in 2010 — one of the highest in the region — it’s plummeted to just 45 percent after more than two years of warfare.
Bruce Aylward, the head of polio eradication and emergency response at the World Health Organization (WHO), has pointed out that just a few confirmed cases of polio could actually mean that hundreds of children are infected. Wild strains of the virus only display symptoms in one out of every 200 people who are infected. “The Syrian outbreak shows why eradication is the solution for this virus,” Aylward noted. “As long as it persists, if children are non-immunized, it will find them.”
WHO has made advances in combating polio since the international community made it a top priority in 2012. But since the virus is highly infectious, it’s still able to spread beyond the three countries where it’s most endemic. Over the past year, there’s been an increase in polio transmissions in Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia, and South Sudan.
Polio isn’t only example of once-common disease that’s making a comeback after scientists nearly wiped it out. In the United States, measles cases have been on the rise, despite the fact that researchers thought they virtually eradicated the infectious disease back in 2000. That’s happening for the same reason that polio continues to persist: pockets of unvaccinated people allow the virus to spread. Federal health officials have confirmed that persistent anti-vaccine beliefs — the myth that they’re not safe for children, or that they’re linked to autism — are to blame for giving rise to these public health issues.