There is good news from the world of medicine. The number of poliomyelitis cases throughout the world has decreased, with only a few countries left with the disease. Continuing with correct vaccination strategies, WHO expects eradication in 2019.
The situation after the epidemic’s difficult years
Polio is a serious, highly infectious disease that affects the central nervous system, especially attacking the motor neurons of the spinal cord and causing paralysis. The virus mainly affects children under the age of 5 and was responsible for the epidemics that caused an exorbitant number of paralysis cases in the 1900s. In 1952 alone, the disease took 21,000 victims in the United States. Italy hit its peak in 1958 with more than 8,000 people affected by the disease. Until 30 years ago, poliomyelitis continued to reap numerous victims, affecting 350,000 children each year in 125 countries across the world. The situation has changed drastically in recent years due to continual vaccination strategies. Italy was declared polio-free on June 21, 2002 even though the last case of polio in Italy was in 1982. In 2018, less than 30 cases were reported, mostly in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and in the last few years the world has come close to completely eradicating the disease, the same objective that was previously achieved with smallpox.
The difficult journey towards eradication
High immunization coverage needs to be ensured for children everywhere in order to achieve eradication, yet this is not always possible in countries at war or which lack health care infrastructures. Weakening polio not only means keeping the wild poliovirus under control, but the vaccine-virus as well. Oral vaccines, mostly used in poor countries because they are cheaper than intramuscular vaccines, have been used to halt the circulation of the wild poliovirus, yet because it is a live virus, it can replicate and circulate within the human body, accumulating mutations that can lead to paralysis. These cases are extremely rare and concentrated in areas with limited healthcare services and where levels of coverage are not guaranteed, but this aspect must not be overlooked if polio eradication is to be obtained in the near future.
Beating poliomyelitis means saving numerous lives. It also means saving 40-50 billion dollars each year. Failure to eradicate polio from these last strongholds, however, could bring about the revival of the disease with 200,000 new cases every year within ten years. For this reason, the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan have mobilized civil societies, religious leaders, health care workers and families to achieve excellent results in the last few years. The WHO Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, recently visited the two countries, reaffirming the global effort towards the 2019 objective: zero polio transmission.
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