Polio: What We’ve Forgotten


October 24, 2016

While polio has existed throughout history, last century brought an intensification. Every summer in the United States, from 1916 onwards, a polio outbreak occurred somewhere in the country – with the very worst happening in the 1940s and 1950s. New York City was particularly affected. Summer became a feared time. Impacted families had notices placed on their homes, their addresses were published and everyone was quarantined.

Children who caught polio could experience fevers, vomiting, muscle aches, pain and stiffness in their arms, legs and backs, and possible permanent paralysis. If breathing and swallowing muscles were paralyzed, death could result.

Treatment was arduous – there is no cure, so care was focused on treating symptoms and results. Children with compromised lungs were hooked up to “Iron Lung” machines to help them keep breathing. Braces, splints and even casts were used to stretch limbs, sometimes for months at a time. This treatment regime was eventually challenged by an Australian nurse named Elizabeth Kenny, who implemented her own form of physical therapy, heat packs and medication to prevent muscle spasms. Her methods are still widely used in polio treatment.

My parents and their families – living the United Kingdom and Australia at the height, lived that same fear. My mother’s best friend and my ‘aunt’ was one of the hundreds of thousands of children struck by polio. It has impacted her life, her health and left her in great pain – with ever declining mobility – for almost 60 years.  

Ground-breaking vaccines were developed that changed everything. Jonas Salk led the first team to develop a vaccine against poliomyelitis in 1952. By 1957, annual cases in the United States dropped from 58,000 at the height, to 5,600 cases. Alfred Sabin’s oral polio vaccine in the form of drops became available in 1962 and the disease continued to decline in the U.S.

Globally, slowing the disease has been harder. At the height of the epidemic worldwide, 350,000 polio cases were reported each year

Where are we today?

Now polio remains regularly occurring in only three countries – Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan.  In 2015, 72 cases of polio were reported worldwide, and we’ve only seen approximately 30 reported cases this year. The very best way to keep our world polio free is to maintain high immunity through vaccination.

The fight to end polio is led by the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, which includes Rotary International, UNICEF, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, World Health Organization, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and governments of the world, with the support of many others around the globe.

Take Action Challenge

Stand up for children around the world who we still haven’t been able to reach! Here are some ways you can get involved.

  1. $20 can vaccinate 20 children for life against polio! Donate here.
  2. Join the Shot@Life Campaign as a champion. You can become an advocate in your community and with your elected officials to support efforts to get vaccines to the hardest to reach children. Learn more here.
  3. The United Nations Children’s Fund – UNICEF – has been at the forefront of global polio eradication efforts. Watch and share this virtual reality video with actor Ewan McGregor. He introduces 9 year old Job, one of the last children in Kenya to contract the disease, and Sabina, a dedicated vaccinator who will do whatever it takes to ensure that no child should ever suffer it again.

    Give here support to UNICEF’s immunization programs.

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