The effort to destroy the poliovirus once and for all has entered what could be its final phase. As reported by BBC News, 155 nations have begun switching to a new type of vaccine designed to target the two remaining viral strains, of which there have only been 10 confirmed cases this year.
Although this switch has been a huge logistical exercise – one that’s been 18 months in the planning – it looks like this will be the final nail in the coffin for the persistent, debilitating disease. Although nearly three-quarters of those infected by it show no symptoms, one in every 200 will experience paralysis. Among those paralyzed, up to 10 percent die when their breathing muscles seize up.
The new vaccine is mainly being given out in developing countries, but richer ones, like Mexico and Russia, are also taking part. As it is still administered orally, aid workers will not need any addition training. The third strain, type 2 poliovirus, was eradicated in 1999, and will no longer be a component of the vaccine.
“In very rare cases [the type 2 component] can mutate and lead to polio, through what's called circulating vaccine-derived virus,” Dr. Stephen Cochi, from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told BBC News. “So removing type 2 from the vaccine takes away that risk – and ensures we have a vaccine which will work better dose by dose.”
Countries that had endemic cases of polio (red) and those that experienced inadvertent vaccine-related infections (blue) in 2016. Tobus/Wikimedia Commons; CC BY-SA 4.0
Polio’s history extends back into Ancient Egypt, around 3,500 years ago, with an apparent victim of the illness engraved onto a stone tablet. Stealthily surviving for millennia, it was only during the 20th century that major epidemics began to occur. During the 1940s and the early 1950s, there were an average of 35,000 cases of polio every single year in the U.S. alone, although this dropped off rapidly when a vaccine was introduced in 1955.
Following on from the successful initiative to eradicate smallpox in 1980, a massive worldwide poliovirus vaccination program was agreed upon in 1988. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) was backed by the World Health Organization (WHO), the CDC, the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), the Rotary Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and governments around the world.
There has been a truly remarkable global decrease in cases ever since it began, from 350,000 per year to just 74 in 2015 – a reduction rate of 99 percent. Only Afghanistan and Pakistan, two notoriously volatile and unstable nations, are still reporting diagnoses. Africa has been polio-free since the last case was diagnosed in Somalia on August 11, 2014.
Since 1988, 13 million cases of polio-induced paralysis have been prevented and more than 650,000 deaths have been avoided. This massive vaccination program doesn’t just save lives – it generates wealth, too. The long-term economic benefits have been estimated to be up to $50 billion.
Vaccination efforts to eliminate other deadly diseases are ongoing, but they’re being hampered by efforts from anti-vaxxers who are promoting their campaigns of misinformation around the world. As a result of failing to vaccinate their children, 2 million children die every year. With the science settled, and with vaccines costing less than $0.1 per dose, this madness has to stop.