Disease Eradication

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

Life after Polio: Towards Improving the Situation of Polio Survivors

~Written by Hussain Zandam (Contact: huzandam@gmail.com, 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. http://www.who.int/ mediacentre/factsheets/fs114/en/index.html (accessed 11.08.15.).

WHO/World Bank, 2011. World Report on Disability. WHO, Geneva. http://www. who.int/disabilities/world_report/2011/en/index.html (accessed 12.08.15.).

Infectious Diseases, Vaccination

Polio Eradication: How Close are We?

~Written by Theresa Majeski (Contact: theresa.majeski@gmail.com, twitter: @theresamajeski)

Polio may become the second viral human disease (following smallpox) ever eradicated from this planet. Like smallpox, polio can be prevented with vaccination and, perhaps most importantly, polio relies solely on person-to-person transmission for survival. This means that polio does not require any vectors like mosquitos or snails for its life cycle, so humans are the only ones infected by poliovirus. Polio is usually spread through a fecal-oral route, meaning that the virus is in the stool of an infected person and could come in contact with the mouth of an uninfected person through contaminated foods, hands, utensils, etc. If we can interrupt transmission through vaccination, poliovirus will be unable to find someone unimmunized to infect and will be eradicated.

Polio has a long history within the human population. Only sixty years ago, polio was a feared disease in the United States. Summer time brought with it polio season and public facilities such as swimming pools were shut down. This reaction was not unwarranted. In 1952 almost 600,000 children were infected with the virus. More than 3,000 died and thousands were paralyzed. Iron lungs were used to keep children alive as the paralysis left them unable to breathe on their own.

Photo of children in iron lungs. Photo courtesy of the National Museum of Health and Medicine. 

Photo of children in iron lungs. Photo courtesy of the National Museum of Health and Medicine. 

President Franklin D. Roosevelt contracted polio as an adult, years before taking office. He made fighting polio a national priority and established the March of Dimes to encourage everyday citizens to fund polio research. Jonas Salk created the first polio vaccine, approved in 1955; Alfred Sabin created a second polio vaccine, approved in 1963. Through the use of these two vaccines, the United States was able to eradicate polio by 1979.

Despite this, it wasn’t until the 1970’s that polio was recognized as a serious problem in developing countries. Once polio was identified as being prevalent in developing countries, routine immunization campaigns were implemented worldwide which helped bring polio under control in many countries. In 1988, when the Global Polio Eradication Initiative began, more than 1000 children worldwide were paralyzed by polio every day. Since then, the global incidence of polio has decreased by 99 percent.

Countries that have achieved elimination have not done so without challenges. The two polio vaccines have benefits and drawbacks. The Salk vaccine, also called the inactivated polio vaccine (IPV), contains chemically inactivated polio virus. It stimulates a strong systemic immune response but because it is an injection, it does not cause a strong mucosal immunity. Without a strong mucosal immune response poliovirus can replicate in the intestines of immunized people without causing symptoms and can then be contagious. On the other hand, the Sabin vaccine, also called the oral polio vaccine (OPV), is a live-attenuated vaccine. This means that the vaccine contains live, weakened poliovirus. The Sabin vaccine is given orally so it stimulates mucosal immunity and systemic immunity. However, because it is a live vaccine, it can revert to a virulent form and cause vaccine-derived polio infection. The Sabin vaccine is easier to administer because it doesn’t require syringes, and it provides longer immunity than the Salk vaccine, however, it requires strict transport conditions because it is live. The World Health Organization is advocating for countries to move towards the IPV and phase out use of the OPV, to help prevent vaccine-derived polio cases. The Global Alliance for Vaccines (GAVI) recently announced that they will be helping Pakistan introduce the IPV as part of the Polio Eradication and Endgame Strategic Plan 2013-2018.

Currently, polio is endemic in only three countries: Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan. In order for a country to be declared free of polio, three years must pass without a case of endemic (wild type) polio. Nigeria achieved one year without an endemic polio case on 24 July 2015. This means that only two more years remain before the African continent may be declared polio-free. India was removed from the list of polio-endemic countries in 2012, and in 2014 India achieved polio-free status. India, long considered the country facing the greatest challenges to eradication, demonstrates that global eradication is possible. However, some countries that had achieved elimination are experiencing outbreaks of polio, partly due to political instability, which has impacted vaccination rates. For example, Syria was polio free from 1999 to October 2013 when imported cases of polio closely related to strains circulating in Pakistan were confirmed in Deir ex-Zor and Aleppo. This demonstrates the importance of maintaining a high vaccination rate in every country until the disease is eradicated. 

Current polio distribution around the world. Graphic courtesy of Global Polio Eradication Initiative. 

Current polio distribution around the world. Graphic courtesy of Global Polio Eradication Initiative. 

Achieving eradication through eliminating polio in the last few countries will not be easy. The areas with endemic polio transmission face several challenges including conflict and political instability, hard-to-reach populations, and poor infrastructure. Furthermore, community workers trying to administer polio vaccine are being attacked by groups who oppose polio vaccination. The CIA providing vaccinations as a cover for searching for Osama bin Laden certainly eroded trust between health workers administering vaccines and community members, making poliovirus vaccination campaigns that much harder. However, focusing on strengthening all routine immunization delivery, helping locals take ownership of polio eradication in their communities, working directly with community members and leaders, and building trust by keeping a lower profile on international deadlines may help overcome the remaining challenges.

Humanity is on the cusp of another great infectious disease achievement, eradicating polio by 2018. Polio eradication is achievable; however continued focus and resources are required to interrupt transmission in the hardest to reach places. Eradicating polio will save many lives and prevent countless children from paralysis; a goal that can be achieved in our lifetime.

Government Policy, Community Engagement, Political Instability, Vaccination, Infectious Diseases

Civil Unrest and the Global Polio Eradication Efforts

~Written by  Kate Lee - MPH Epidemiology, Vanderbilt University Medical Center (Contact: kathleen.g.lee@vanderbilt.edu)

Vaccine-preventable illnesses are an ongoing global health issue. Just in the United States alone there have been outbreaks of measles and pertussis (whooping cough) from parents refusing to vaccinate their children. In 2013, California had over 9,000 people infected with pertussis. As of September 2014, the United States had almost 600 measles cases. For every 1,000 children getting infected with measles, 1 to 2 will die. There will be continuous outbreaks of diseases once thought to have been controlled or eradicated if parents do not adhere to the immunization schedule for their children. This is, however, an argument for another day.

Despite all of this, the United States no longer has ongoing transmission of one of the more debilitating illnesses that affected a lot of children in its peak during the 1950s: polio. This is, of course, due to vaccination campaigns. Since the launch of global polio eradication efforts in 1988, polio incidence has dropped to more than 99%. What can be said of these efforts in parts of the world that are not as stable economically, politically, or socially? In early 2014 India celebrated its third year without wild-type polio. In 2013, the African continent had 274 cases of polio but only 22 in 2014. Overall in 2014, there were 350 cases of polio, down from 416 in 2013 in the African continent. Ongoing poliovirus transmission occurs in three endemic countries: Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Although poor sanitation is a risk factor for polio, prevention of vaccination is the biggest risk one that these countries face.

Mistrust, misconceptions, and religious reasons all feed into public notions of vaccination. Political unrest may be one of the most important obstacles in the global campaign to end polio. Boko Haram insurgency has led to civil unrest in areas of northern Nigeria where ongoing polio transmission occurs. There has been a decline in polio cases in Afghanistan since the Taliban has allowed vaccination in recent years, but that has not been the case for Pakistan. The Pakistani Taliban and other Islamist groups have led killings of health care workers in an anti-immunization campaign. These militant groups threaten not only health care workers that administer the vaccines to the communities, but also the parents who offer vaccination for their children. Since the Pakistani Taliban ban on immunizations in 2012, more than 60 polio workers have been killed. The result of this has been Pakistan counting its 260th case of polio as of November 2014.

Sadly, the political unrest feeds into public mistrust, resulting in a cycle that perpetuates civil instability and polio transmission, leaving the $10 million global eradication effort hanging in the balance. Some health authorities are questioning if the polio campaign is worth it. Lives are lost, health resources are wasted, and new strategies must be reached to continue the immunization effort in Pakistan. Many individuals wonder why polio should be a priority when the country is undergoing so many more problems. There are a variety of other infectious diseases that place the population at risk due to poor sanitation and malnutrition. Outside of health, the threat of the Taliban hangs over the heads of the population. But, why would the Taliban target immunization campaigns? Part of the answer lies in negotiating leverage to stop drone strikes from the United States. The other part of the answer is rooted in a CIA campaign in 2012 to hide Osama bin Laden intelligence operations through the guise of immunization campaigns. Polio in Pakistan is not the first disease to be heavily affected by political unrest and exploited by militant groups, and it sadly may not be the last. What is extremely crucial to understand is that health and politics are not mutually exclusive.

This theme of political cooperation is constant throughout every public health issue. The global effort to erase polio is not an exception. Militant groups, however, now present an added obstacle in achieving social and political stability so that health care workers can conduct their tasks peacefully. Families and vaccinators should not have to fear that their lives are at risk for undertaking public health activities. Rethinking the immunization strategy in Pakistan is necessary. Improvement of basic health services and sanitation are starting points not just for polio, but a multitude of other infectious diseases. These campaigns are important, but take time and money to come to fruition, two resources that are becoming scarcer in a very unstable country.