Children, Government Policy, Health Systems, Infectious Diseases, Vaccination, Poverty

Life after Polio: Towards Improving the Situation of Polio Survivors

~Written by Hussain Zandam (Contact:, twitter: @zandamatique)

A woman paralyzed by polio, Rotary International (2010)

A woman paralyzed by polio, Rotary International (2010)

here is a surge of excitement among international development communities and global health partners as the World Health Organization announced that the battle against polio is gradually coming to an end (WHO, 2013). The Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) has set out a new strategy (Eradication and Endgame Strategic Plan), which hopefully will be the final onslaught that will result in a global certificate eradication of the disease by 2018 (GPEI, 2013). The eradication will be a significant victory for the global population, as future generations will also be saved from polio's devastating toll of death, morbidity, and disability.

Map of the world comparing countries with polio cases in 1988 and 2014. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC (2014).

Map of the world comparing countries with polio cases in 1988 and 2014. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC (2014).

While a vast amount of resources has been disbursed to prevent polio since 1952, inadequate attention has been devoted to understanding the devastations left behind in the lives and households of polio survivors. The damage is more severe in those permanently disabled by the disease and those recently identified with post-polio syndrome (PPS). Post-polio syndrome is characterized by a renewal or new experience of polio symptoms including disability and functional deterioration after years of recovery and functional stability. PPS usually occurs 30-40 years after original infection and affects about 40% of polio survivors including those who developed permanent disability and those who recover from initial affectation with no or few symptoms (Lin and Lim, 2005). 

Although the situation of polio survivors in high-income countries is relatively well documented, there is a dearth of information in low and middle-income countries. This has profound political, economic and social implications for local, national and international policy-making. While the number of individuals disabled by polio will begin to disappear in the next few decades in the developed world, those in the developing world will continue to be a major concern for at least another generation (Gonzalez et al., 2010). And as the population of younger polio survivors reaches middle and old age, a new wave of individuals with PPS will begin to make additional demands on developing countries’ health systems.

Generally, individuals disabled through polio confront not only a range of physical disabilities but also significant social, financial and human rights barriers hindering integration and participation in families and communities. These barriers in turn, lead to chronic ill-health, social marginalization, limited access to education and employment, and high rates of poverty (Groce et al, 2011). Women are impacted disproportionately, as are individuals from poorer households, minority communities and from rural and urban slum areas (WHO/World Bank, 2011). 

To design effective programs and policies that improve life course outcomes for polio survivors, more research is essential. To begin, more accurate estimates of regional prevalence of polio survivors and the degree of residual disability sustained will be useful for efficient planning and appropriate resource allocation. In particular, addressing the stigma and prejudice encountered by persons disabled by polio must be part of long-term strategies to address the needs of people living with PPS and must be linked to broader efforts to confront disability and stigma faced by all people with disabilities. Ratification by countries of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and progressive national legislation are not enough - inclusion of polio survivors in community awareness campaigns and increased support by DPOs is also needed. And given the disproportionate impact of polio on women, DPOs must pay particular attention to gender sensitive research.



Global Polio Eradication Initiative, 2013. Polio Eradication and Endgame Strategic Plan: 2013e2018.

Groce, N., Kett, M., Lang, R., Trani, J.F., 2011. Disability and poverty: the need for a more nuanced understanding of implications for development policy and practice. Third World Quarterly 32 (8), 1493e1513.

Gonzalez, H., Olsson, T., Borg, K., 2010. Management of postpolio syndrome. The Lancet Neurology 9 (6), 634e642.

Lin, K.H., Lim, Y.W., 2005. Post-poliomyelitis syndrome: case report and review of the literature. Annals-academy of MEDICINE SINGAPORE 34 (7), 447

WHO, 2013. Poliomyelitis. Fact Sheet No. 114. WHO, Geneva. mediacentre/factsheets/fs114/en/index.html (accessed 11.08.15.).

WHO/World Bank, 2011. World Report on Disability. WHO, Geneva. http://www. (accessed 12.08.15.).