Poliomyelitis was virtually unknown before the end of the 19th century. However, poliomyelitis has been around for over 4000 years. One of the earliest records of poliomyelitis was depicted in an ancient Egyptian stone carving dating back in 1403-1365 BC which shows a priest with a walking stick and foot with deformities characteristic of poliomyelitis.
By the 1950’s, poliomyelitis was a common disease around the world. The first modern epidemics were recorded during the industrial revolution with the rapid growth of cities. Doctors started seeing small outbreaks of an odd disease accompanied by fever, paralysis and a tendency to attack children. poliomyelitis epidemics in the US and Europe were severe and affected an unprecedented amount of people, especially children. Large epidemics continued to occur throughout the 1930s and 1940s.
Back then, we had no knowledge of how poliomyelitis spread. As such drastic measures were taken in a bid to stop the spread once cases had been reported.
As fear reached extreme levels, health officials and parents told children to keep screens closed, stay away from crowded areas, stay away from public swimming pools, not to go to movies, stay clean, and stay appropriately dressed. Often, when poliomyelitis appeared in a region, schools and businesses, entire communities would be forced to a standstill.
The fight against poliomyelitis was a cause that President Roosevelt held very close to his heart. In 1944, a year before his death, Franklin D. Roosevelt appealed to the public one last time for donations towards the fight against poliomyelitis. In his last speech, President Roosevelt likened the fight against poliomyelitis to the Second World War: “The dread disease that we battle at home, like the enemy we oppose abroad, shows no concern, no pity for the young. It strikes—with its most frequent and devastating force— against children. And that is why much of the future strength of America depends upon the success that we achieve in combating this disease.” In 1952, poliomyelitis was listed in as Americans’ greatest fear after nuclear attacks.
It was clear early on that we needed an effective vaccine to defeat poliomyelitis. In 1954, Jonas Salk produced an injectable vaccine using a deactivated virus, which he tested on himself, his team, and his own family. IT was subsequently rolled out across America the same year and met with outstanding success. Two years later, Albert Sabin produced an oral vaccine from an attenuated – or weakened – virus, which he proceeded to test on himself, his family, and his team.
On 13th April, 1955, the vaccine was found to be 80-90% effective against paralytic poliomyelitis. The U.S. government licensed Salk’s vaccine on the same day. By 1988, poliomyelitis had disappeared from the US, UK, Australia and much of Europe but remained prevalent in more than 125 countries with approximately 400,000 cases of paralysis.
In the same year, the World Health Assembly resolved to rid the world of poliomyelitis. In 1994, the Americas was the first World Health Organization Region to meet the goal of poliomyelitis elimination. The last wild case recorded in the Western Pacific region including China was in 1997. A further landmark came in 2002, when the WHO certified the European region polio-free.
That brings up to today, and we are still battling poliomyelitis.
An End In Sight
Bill Gates, former CEO of Microsoft, is now leading the charge against poliomyelitis: “It is the subject about which I am most impatient and most optimistic: the fight to eradicate polio. Most people in developed countries know of poliomyelitis as a disease that used to paralyze lots of children. But it isn’t merely a historical curiosity—it still strikes children today.”
Since the poliomyelitis vaccines were first made available, poliomyelitis cases have been reduced by 99%.
The war is almost won but poliomyelitis still has strongholds in three countries, Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
But as long as these strongholds remain, the rest of the world is still at risk of getting poliomyelitis.
- International travel – poliomyelitis re-emerging in China in 2006 after a decade of being polio-free, after travelers from Pakistan brought the disease back into the country.
- People in 13 countries that had already achieved polio-free status were infected by travelers from one of the four endemic countries.
- These importations led to large poliomyelitis outbreaks in Indonesia, Somalia, and Yemen.
However, these strongholds can be broken. India is tantamount to this statement:
- India was the fourth poliomyelitis stronghold until 2011, the last case was reported in January 2011.
- After 2 years and no new poliomyelitis cases, India has been declared polio-free. Thus ending the disease’s tyrannical reign.