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Despite Past Setbacks, Worldwide Polio Eradication Within Reach

NOV 06, 2016 | SUSAN KREIMER, MS
When John Germ’s father contracted polio as an adult, his doctor doubted that he would ever walk again.

Determined to disprove that dismal prediction, “he and my mother tied an iron to his leg where the rope would never touch the ground, and he lifted his leg little by little every day until he could walk again,” Germ, the 2016-2017 president of Rotary International, said at a live media briefing on World Polio Day. “He walked with a limp. He didn’t give up.”

Joining the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the humanitarian organization co-hosted the briefing at CDC on Oct. 24 to stress the significance of obliterating polio despite recent setbacks.

New cases in Nigeria demonstrate the persistence of polio, particularly in insecure areas, and they underscore the need to improve tracking of the disease. The virus has been spreading in inaccessible areas of Borno—a state in northeastern Nigeria—for about five years before it was detected, said Tom Frieden, MD, MPH, director of the CDC. 

“All over the world where there are areas that we don’t have access to, we need to make sure that polio is not lurking,” he said. In addition, “we have to redouble our efforts to get over the finish line in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Despite big obstacles, both countries are making substantial progress.”

While aiming to interrupt the virus where it is still spreading, Dr. Frieden emphasized the significance of transitioning polio services and programs to protect the lives and health of children and adults around the world. Finally, he advocated for ensuring the containment of any remaining polio virus in laboratories, so that once eradication is complete, the virus doesn’t escape and pose a problem again. 

“Eradication of polio is a CDC priority,” Dr. Frieden said. Brimming with enthusiasm about the decline in polio cases worldwide, he noted that “we are on the brink” of wiping out this crippling and potentially fatal infectious disease. “We are closer than ever. All too often in public health, only bad news is news. But today, we do have good news.”

Dr. Frieden highlighted that only 27 cases of polio have been diagnosed so far in 2016—a dramatic plunge from an estimated 350,000 children disabled by the disease in 1988, when the world pledged to annihilate it once and for all. Since then, 2.5 billion children have received vaccinations against the virus—a widespread effort that has spared about 15 million more children from polio-inflicted disabilities. 

“It isn’t so long ago that polio was common in this country and elsewhere,” Dr. Frieden recalled. “When I did my medical training, we still had the iron lung on the floor where we treated patients, and one of my colleagues in medical school was struggling with post-polio syndrome.”

Rotary has been dedicated to combating polio since 1979, “and we will remain committed until the end,” said Germ, its president. Eradicating polio will necessitate heightened surveillance, strong immunization systems, and “vaccinating as many children as possible, even in areas that are incredibly difficult for us to reach,” he explained. Attaining this goal will cost an additional $1.5 billion, but Germ expressed optimism that persistence will pay off.

Generous contributions from donors have made it possible to overcome obstacles in the fight against polio. In addition, the global polio eradication initiative consists of five partners: Rotary International, CDC, World Health Organization, UNICEF, and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The foundation has agreed to match Rotary $2 for $1, for up to $35 million that Rotary allots to this effort on an annual basis, Germ said.

Joining the CDC and Rotary at the briefing, Reza Hossaini, director of polio eradication at UNICEF, praised the rapid response in Nigeria. “Polio is almost defeated,” he said, while cautioning that “the recent cases of polio viruses in Nigeria are a sharp reminder that almost is not good enough.”

In October, a military operation in northeastern Nigeria created corridors and liberated areas, facilitating UNICEF’s massive campaign to target 41 million children, not only in Nigeria, but also in the Lake Chad region spanning five countries. Four cases of polio were detected while about two million people didn’t receive any vaccination in nearly three years. The wild virus circulates because of porous borders and people migrating between neighboring nations, Hossaini said.

“And once polio outbreak happens, it happens once and everywhere,” he said. “So we cannot rest, and we will not rest, until we reach every last child with a polio vaccination.” 

Dr. Frieden added that “the last mile of the journey is often the hardest; so it has been with polio. But it has been a long journey and we can see the end in sight. And that end lifts our spirits and our hearts—and reminds us that we will get to a day when polio is history.”
Susan Kreimer, MS, is a medical journalist who has written articles about infectious diseases and many other health topics. For two decades, her coverage has informed consumers, physicians, nurses and health system executives. Raised in the Chicago area, she holds a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University and lives in New York City. 
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