World Polio Day – A Significant Success Story in Combatting a Disease which Largely Targets Young Children

World Polio Day, October 24, celebrates of the birth of Jonas Salk, the American researcher who developed the first polio vaccine in 1955.  Since that epochal discovery, global public health programs, significantly funded by the United States, have reduced polio worldwide by 99 percent.

Polio is caused by a contagious virus which is transmitted through the gastrointestinal tract (mouth, throat, gut) and damages the nervous system.  Most people infected with the virus do not show any symptoms, but can still transmit the virus to others.  Polio can be fatal, particularly when it results in paralysis of the respiratory muscles and inhibits the ability to breathe.  Polio mainly affects children under five years of age, therefore, vaccination programs are focused on infants and young children. There is no cure for polio; only prevention through vaccination.

The Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) is the largest public health-private public partnership dedicated to eradicating polio worldwide.  It implemented by the World Health Organization (WHO), U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and other organizations.  Since 1988, the United States has provided over $3.3 billion to GPEI.

Through vaccination, the world has made incredible strides against polio.  More than 18 million people are able to walk today who would otherwise have been paralyzed, and 1.5 million childhood deaths have been averted thanks to the polio vaccine.  The global eradication effort has successfully wiped polio out of four of the six WHO regions, and the fifth – the WHO AFRO region – may be declared wild polio-free in 2020.  World Polio Day 2019 will mark the official declaration of the eradication of wild poliovirus, type 3, leaving only wild poliovirus, type 1 in circulation.  However, all countries are at risk until polio is gone everywhere.

Here in Chad, which in 2011 was in the throes of a polio epidemic, there were 132 confirmed cases.  A massive multi-donor, public-private effort was deployed, with the result that no new cases have been confirmed since June 2012.  Most importantly, Chad was declared polio free in 2016.  As elsewhere in the continent, the United States was a major financial and expertise contributor to the multi-donor effort, which included WHO and UNICEF, and was led by the Government of Chad’s Ministry of Health.

The United States continues to assist the effort to completely eradicate all vestiges of polio in Chad by providing technical assistance by CDC epidemiologists working from the WHO office in support of Chad’s Ministry of Health disease surveillance and control efforts.