Polio Resurgence

There are only three countries remaining in which the once-dreaded scourge of polio is still considered endemic: Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan. Pakistan reported last year that one type of the virus had been completely eliminated from its borders. Only two forms of polio are still found anywhere at all, so this represents a major advance in public health, not only in Pakistan, but worldwide.

The bad news is that there appears to be a resurgence of polio in Syria, one of the countries from which it had previously been driven out. Civil war in that country had frustrated efforts to vaccinate children, the health community’s primary weapon against the disease, and 22 cases have been reported so far, the first since 1999. Poor sanitation contributes to the spread of the disease, and conditions in Syria have left millions of people living in unhygienic conditions.

Polio has been around for thousands of years; there is evidence of ancient Egyptians suffering the paralysis characteristic of the disease. However, the first description of it in medical literature was a 1789 study by a British doctor named Michael Underwood. The first epidemic was identified in the United States in 1916, and outbreaks occurred every summer for several decades, peaking in the U.S. in the 1940s and 1950s.

It was then, in 1955, that the first effective polio vaccine was announced. Vaccination has been a cornerstone of the global campaign to wipe out the disease completely. The first country to eliminate polio from within its borders was Czechoslovakia in 1960. The Pan American Health Organization began work in 1985 to make the Americas polio-free; the effort was deemed a success just nine years later. The disease was gone from Europe by 2002.

The primary obstacles to eradication now are political and cultural, with beliefs in some regions that the vaccine is harmful, or even a plot by Western interests. Public health experts are recommending community-based education efforts to help build trust.

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