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Vanquishing Polio

By Maryann Makosiej

In a milestone for public health, the World Health Organization declared this year that two out of the last three wild poliovirus strains has been totally eradicated.

Following the eradication of smallpox in 1980 and wildtype poliovirus 2 in 2015, the end of wildtype poliovirus 3 marks a historic event that ought to be celebrated in the Year-End Review at The Natural Philosopher.

According to the World Health Organization, polio (poliomyelitis) is an infection of the nervous system. It is highly contagious, and is often spread from contaminated feces into water and food supplies.

There are three separate wild poliovirus strains. Though immunologically distinct, they all can lead to irreparable paralysis and eventual death. Often, early symptoms are flu-like, beginning with a sore throat, high fever, and nausea, but can lead to irreversible paralysis (Center For Disease Control, n.d.). Among those paralyzed, 5% to 10% die because the muscles that help them breathe stop working (World Health Organization, Poliomyelitis, 2019).

In the early 1980s, more than 350,000 people per year suffered from paralytic polio.

In 2016, the number of paralytic polio cases was 46.

What happened?

In 1988, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) was launched in response to the intense public fear and the sheer number of polio cases the world had experienced. The largest public health initiative in the world, it aimed to eradicate polio by the year 2000 (Global Polio Eradication Initiative, n.d.). Key features of the program included strengthening global childhood vaccine initiatives and surveillance to ensure areas where the virus had truly been eradicated.

However, science does not exist in a vacuum. The initiative to vaccinate children against a devastating and lifelong illness has often been met with cultural pushback and hostility toward the West.

In 2014, 89 medical workers were murdered in Pakistan, Nigeria, and Afghanistan alone for going door-to-door with the oral polio vaccine to try to convince families to vaccinate their children (Smith 2014). The campaign to end polio has been a tough and dangerous road.

The victory of having eradicated the second of three strains of poliovirus is momentous. It is a victory 31 years in the making and the result of thousands of individuals, nations, and governments working together to end the scourge of a devastating disease. It is a campaign for which many have given their lives, so that one day no child needs to live in fear of being paralyzed from a virus. One day, polio, like smallpox before it, can be relegated to the history textbook.

That’s an idea worth celebrating.


CDC Global Health - Polio - What Is Polio? (2017, July 25). Retrieved from

Two out of three wild poliovirus strains eradicated. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Poliomyelitis (polio). (2019, July 22). Retrieved from

Smith, A. (2016, March 7). Polio-Related Murders Kill More Than the Disease Itself. Retrieved from

Homepage. (n.d.). Retrieved from

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