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Irradicating a monster: India a step closer to ending a global epidemic

Since 1955 it's been on the run, but this killer still needs to be put down.

This is a good day. India was once regarded as the epicenter of polio, but things are looking up – as of today it has been a full year since the last new polio case was announced in the country. Poliovirus has long been a monster that raises its terrible head in periodic epidemics around the globe… leaving fear, lifelong paralysis and death in its wake.  It looks like the beast may be starting to wimper.

It’s hard to imagine that not so very long ago, polio was a very real threat to children in the United States. At the height of the epidemic, in 1952, the U.S. had nearly 60,000 cases with more than 3,000 deaths reported  but the discovery of a vaccine in 1955 drove the monster back into the darkness and within 10 years (with universal vaccinations) the infections dropped to a mere 61. The world had become a safer place for everyone.

Still, even with a vaccine readily available there are many countries who have not had the will or infrastructure to provide vaccinations to their citizens and so the horrific affects of this condition can still be seen (especially in impoverished communities) around the world. Four countries stand out: Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and Nigeria, (often known by the acronym PAIN) because they have “endemic” wild polio that has yet to be reined in.

And as long as there are outbreaks of the virus all of us, especially children are at risk.  In this global, jet setting world the dangers are even more readily apparent. In fact, 2009 and 2010 there were outbreaks of polio in 23 previously polio-free countries when they were  re-infected by outsiders or individuals returning from infected regions of the world.

The Scary Facts:  1 in 200 infections of Polio leads to irreversible paralysis. Of those paralyzed, 5% to 10% die after their breathing muscles become immobilized. Currently, there are over 350,000 polio survivors in India, many with crippling limb deformities.

The Good News: Polio cases have decreased by over 99% since 1988, from 350,000 to 1,349 reported cases in 2010.

One drop at a time and the world is changed. (Credit: Richard Wainwright http://www.richwainwright.com)

The World Health Organization praised India and leaders in the fight against polio for the achievement but cautioned that the work isn’t over yet. WHO Director-General Margaret Chan had this to say “The Global Polio Eradication Initiative is in full emergency mode and focused on using this momentum to close this crippling disease down.”

This achievement is in no small part thanks to the efforts by other countries, individuals and organizations. Decades of work by the Rotary Club and more recently The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (which has given about $6 billion to fighting this epidemic as well as measles, AIDs, and Hepatitis B) have worked ceaselessly to remove this threat from the world.

Right now the monster is mostly caged, but given time and continued diligence, it’s very likely that this threat will no longer leave its terrible mark on humanity. That’s good news we all can rejoice in.

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This entry was posted on January 13, 2012 by in The Good News.

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