Eradicating polio. We are almost there!

When I got my vaccinations as a child, there was one particular immunisation that I still remember today. Unlike all other vaccines it was not administered as an injection (which I hated and am still squirmish about today). Instead, the doctor just put a few sweet, sugary drops in my mouth and told me to swallow them. This was my polio vaccination.

I still remember five-year old me thinking: Was that it already? Where is the syringe? Maybe they are trying to trick me and will sting me later?

A girl is receiving her oral polio vaccine (OPV) developed by Albert Sabin.

Polio is caused by a virus that is spread from person to person. About 72 % of individuals who are infected with polio do not get ill at all. The rest often show flu-like symptoms like fever, tiredness, a sore throat or headache.

In a small proportion of patients, the polio virus moves into the spinal cord and nervous system. This can cause meningitis (an infection in the covering of the spinal cord and brain) and paralysis (the inability to move arms and/or legs). Paralysis, the most dreaded symptom, occurs in about 1 in 200 polio cases according to World Health Organization (WHO) estimates.

A person can die of polio if the paralysis includes a muscle called the ”diaphragm” which is located below the lungs. When the diaphragm muscle moves down the lungs fill with air. The air is pushed out of the lungs when the muscle moves up. If the diaphragm is paralysed patients loose the ability to breathe and suffocate.

The respiratory tract including the lungs and the diaphragm. The diaphragm is the muscle that fills the lungs with air when moving down and pushes air out of the lungs when moving up.

The only way to save these patients’ life is to put them inside a machine called an ”Iron Lung” which breathes for them. This large apparatus encloses the whole body, leaving only the patient’s head outside. It uses pressure to inflate and deflate the lungs enabling the individual to breathe.

Staff in Rhode Island hospital (US) examine a patient in an Iron Lung during a polio outbreak in 1960.

When recovering from polio some patients regain the use of their muscles and are be able to breathe and walk again. However, others never recover. Many have to continue using wheelchairs. Others spend the rest of their lives locked inside Iron Lungs.

Due to these horrible consequences, people in the Western world used to be terrified of polio in the first half of the 20th century. During local polio outbreaks, schools as well as places of worship would close and large gatherings were prohibited. Steps that sound only too familiar to today’s Covid-19 measures.

Another similarity between the two diseases is that many individuals do not get ill or only exhibit very mild symptoms which enables the wide spread of the disease. At the same time, other patients are hit very hard, die or suffer long-term repercussions. For polio, it was impossible to predict who would walk away with a light headache and who would have to spend the rest of their lives inside an Iron Lung.

In addition, as for Covid-19, there was an intense race to find a vaccine against polio. The first inactivated polio vaccine (IPV), which is given as an injection in arms or legs, developed by Jonas Salk, was approved 1955. Another oral polio vaccine (OPV), invented by Albert Sabin, came into use 1961. The latter was the vaccine that I received as a six-year old swallowing the sweet, sugary drops.

The introduction of the two polio vaccines was a huge success leading to the eradication of polio in large parts of the world. There have not been any new polio cases in the US since 1979 and in the UK since 1984. The Americas and the Western Pacific region were declared polio-free in 2000, India followed in 2014.

The latest part of the world to eradicate polio is Africa which has only been anounced recently, 25 August 2020, about seven years after the last new case was registered in Nigeria.

Only two countries remain were polio is still active, Pakistan and Afghanistan and eradicating the disease there seems to be only a question of time. We are almost there!

The large scale eradication of polio has been possible thanks to the vaccination programs of the WHO, Unicef and their partners. If you want to make a contribution to eradicating polio completely, you can donate polio vaccines through Unicef’s Online Shop.

The story of the eradication of polio gives hope that we will also be able to stop Covid-19. As with polio, much will depend on the development and use of vaccines. The images of rooms crammed with children in Iron Lungs are history today. The images of overfilled intensive care units with patients on ventilators will be history some day too, hopefully soon.


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