After plaguing humans for thousands of years, polio is on the verge of being wiped out. In 1988, the virus was endemic in 125 countries, but today it exists in only three: Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan. With scientists so close to eradicating polio, their work exhibits a renewed sense of urgency.
Polio, also called poliomyelitis or infantile paralysis, is caused by a virus that can infect nerves and lead to partial or complete paralysis. Between the 1840s and 1950s, polio epidemics occurred worldwide, paralyzing or killing half a million people each year.
All that changed in the 1950s with the development of polio vaccines. Over 20 years ago, the World Health Assembly resolved to wipe polio from the Earth by 2000. The organization got pretty close. During that time, health care workers immunized over 2 billion children.
Since humans are the only reservoirs for polio, there’s an opportunity to eliminate the disease. And yet that hasn’t happened. Why?
Inadequate funding is a major barrier. For example, an 18-month action plan devised by the World Health Organization needs $945 million to be fulfilled.
Logistics and politics are even bigger obstacles. Getting the vaccines to children in remote areas is complicated or made impossible by geopolitics, many of which are anti-U.S. or anti-Western. The Taliban has banned vaccinations in northern Pakistan, an area it controls, to protest American drone strikes. In one of the safe havens inside Pakistan, a local community worker helping with the campaign against polio was shot and killed. Just days before, two gunmen shot a Ghanaian doctor working for the WHO and his Pakistani driver, who were also participating in a polio vaccination campaign.
Some of the violence is driven by a distrust of humanitarian and health care workers. A polio vaccine program in Nigeria eight years ago was undermined by rumors that the vaccine was unsafe and part of a nefarious plan to sterilize Muslim children.
The CIA exacerbated this distrust by using a fake vaccination campaign to locate Osama Bin Laden. It planned to use DNA obtained through administering a hepatitis B vaccine to identify Bin Laden’s children and therefore find the terrorist. The ruse enraged locals, along with critics who blame the CIA for damaging the fragile relationship health care workers built with local communities in the anti-polio campaign and other vaccine programs. Furthermore, community workers in these areas became even greater targets of terrorist organizations.
Such complications leave polio-free countries at risk for imported cases. Chad, a country bordering Nigeria, has documented a few cases from people crossing the shared border. An outbreak in China in early 2012 that paralyzed 17 children and killed two is believed to have come from Pakistan.
Already this year, over 100 cases of polio have been reported, though they could have been avoided with a 50-cent vaccine. A valiant effort by multiple nonprofit and governmental agencies is now underway to rid us of the last vestiges of this disease.