In the U.S., we think of polio as a disease that ended with the children in the baby boomer generation. The vaccine was invented in 1952, and the disease was fully eradicated in this country by 1979.
Not knowing much about the topic, I had assumed that polio was gone around the world at the time I met a young man whose leg had been amputated and asked him what had happened to him. I had been in rural Bangladesh at the time, traveling as a graduate student researcher, and the man was a rare villager who spoke English (his disability gave him more time to pursue education). He was curious about me, and I was curious about him. But I was pretty shocked by his answer: polio.
Thanks to massive vaccination efforts and education, the World Health Organization declared Southeast Asia officially polio-free this week. Bangladesh had succeeded at this milestone about seven years ago, and India had been the last 11 countries in the region with reported cases. Now after three years without a new case, India and the rest of the region can be marked in the “success” column of the eradication battle–a significant achievement in what has been a resource-intensive decades long public-health campaign.
Still, 60 years after the vaccine was invented, global eradication of polio is not quite in reach. Eighty percent of the world’s population lives in certified polio-free regions, but new cases still pop up in countries where they have not appeared in more than a decade, while others, including Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan, still had dozens of cases in 2013. Many times, these are in conflict-torn nations that have weak infrastructure. Syria, notably, has had a recent outbreak of polio after having no cases in the nation for 14 years. As of March 2014, 37 cases of polio in Syria had been reported–25 by the government’s health ministry and 12 cases in contested areas not in the official figures. Last week, a new case sprung up in Iraq that is linked to the Syria outbreak. Some researchers worry that the regional outbreak could spread to Europe.
This should all be a lesson in the United States, where we are generally unlikely to run into someone like the gentleman I met in Bangladesh who shows us the dangers of these diseases first-hand.
We may not be much worried about polio, but another entirely preventable disease–measles–is on its way back here because of growing ranks of parents who refuse to get their children vaccinated. The spread of the infection was eliminated in the U.S. back in 2000, but last year saw a large resurgence of cases (189 cases) caused by outbreaks in places like California and New York City, and the CDC says the number of annual cases has been increasing steadily in recent years. Most people who get infected by the “highly contagious” disease, and most who are unvaccinated are the result of “philosophical differences” with the measles, mumps, and rubella shot.
Measles, like polio, is on the decline worldwide. The United States shouldn’t become a last haven for the virus. Unlike war-torn places and poverty-stricken places like Syria and Afghanistan, there’s really no excuse.