It’s nearly game over for polio.
Thanks to a worldwide mass vaccination effort, we could see the last case of polio this year. That’s according to Bill Gates who recently spoke at the Rotary International's fifth annual World Polio Day event with Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet.
“If things stay stable enough in the conflict areas, humanity could see its last case of polio sometime this year,” Bill Gates said in his foundation’s 2017 annual letter earlier this year.
"When you were growing up, you saw things kids never see today: children with polio on crutches and leg braces, photos of kids in iron lungs... It’s thrilling to be nearing the day when no children will be crippled by polio."
Paralympian wheelchair basketball player and polio survivor Ade Adepitan said in an address to the audience, the day the world is finally declared polio-free could be “the greatest day of the human race so far”.
Polio (poliomyelitis) has killed or paralyzed millions of people, primarily young children. This highly infectious virus invades the nervous system, starting with symptoms such as vomiting, fatigue, a stiff neck, painful limbs, and muscle damage. In some cases, it can go on to cause total paralysis.
The virus has been around for centuries but it garnered attention at the turn of the 20th century following a spate of localized paralytic polio epidemics in Europe and the US. Back then it was common practice to place patients in a negative pressure ventilator, like the ones in the image above, known as an "Iron Lung", to help them breathe.
The first polio vaccine was developed in the 1950s by Jonas Salk. By 1988, the World Health Assembly set a target to eradicate the disease through an oral polio vaccine. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has since bolstered this effort with hundreds of millions of dollars. The results are phenomenal.
During the late-1980s, the wild poliovirus was present in more than 125 countries and paralyzed 350,000 people every year. This year, there’s been just 12 reported cases in two countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan. It's believed this program has saved over 13 million children from paralysis.
“We’re optimistic," Bill Gates added. "This expanding capacity gives us a chance to solve mysteries and save lives – and that lets us end our letter with a bright look ahead.
“Polio will soon be history. In our lifetimes, malaria will end. No one will die from AIDS. Few people will get TB. Children everywhere will be well nourished. And the death of a child in the developing world will be just as rare as the death of a child in the rich world.”
So long, polio! You won't be missed.
Edited 30/10/2017: This article originally stated that polio could be eradicated by the end of 2017. While we could potentially see the last case of polio this year, the world must then go three years without a single additional case in order for the polio virus to be officially certified as eradicated.