SEATTLE — Polio, a highly infectious disease that invades the nervous system and can cause paralysis in a matter of hours, was once found in over 120 countries across the globe. It can be fatal and there were “40 cases an hour” according to Bill Gates. Now, polio eradication is within sight.
The disease that was once ubiquitous around the globe has seen a steep decline in recent years. In 2014, there were 300 cases reported, in 2015, the number was 74 and in 2016 the number was 37. How many have there been this year? Only 12 so far.
“Progress in fighting polio might be one of the world’s best-kept secrets in global health,” Gates wrote in the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s 2017 annual letter. “If things stay stable in the conflicted areas, humanity will see its last case of polio this year.” Gates originally predicted that polio would be eradicated by 2019.
Today, the polio virus exists in exactly two countries: Afghanistan and Pakistan. In Pakistan, attempts to eradicate the virus in the country have been ramped up. Originally, the vaccine used in Pakistan was oral, but they have switched to a more effective injection method. There will also be fuel allowances from organizations like UNICEF that will enable vaccinators to reach remote regions of the country.
In Afghanistan, they are “working under a National Emergency Action Plan to ensure that chronically missed children are consistently reached now and in the future,” according to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. Reaching missed children is crucial because of how the virus spreads. Dr. Jay Wenger, who leads the Gates Foundation’s polio eradication efforts, said the virus can only live in people and needs new people to infect to stay alive and keep spreading. If people are made immune to the virus, then the virus dies off.
The most critical issue in the elimination of the polio virus, however, is not lack of access to vaccinations, but rather terrorist organizations that hinder the progress of vaccinations and promote mistrust of the U.S.
The Taliban has been known to forbid immunizations and disseminate false information regarding polio vaccines. They have also attacked vaccinators and made threats against parents who would get their children vaccinated.
The U.S. has had a hand in creating a lot of mistrust. In 2011, the CIA conducted fake vaccinations in the town where it believed Osama bin Laden was hiding in an elaborate attempt to obtain DNA from bin Laden’s family, according to the Guardian.
To add fuel to the fire, President Donald Trump has delivered a new strategy that could increase mistrust. President Trump has vowed to decrease the amount of aid the U.S. sends to Pakistan and increase the number of troops sent to the country.
Despite these interferences, however, the Gates Foundation and Rotary International affirmed their commitment to see this fight through to the end. Not until it is certain that polio has been completely wiped out will the commitment end, says Dr. Wenger. “We want to be sure we finish it off.”
Polio eradication is not just important for health reasons, but it could also have economic benefits. In his letter, Gates wrote, “ending polio will save lives — through the magic of zero. When polio is eradicated, the world can dedicate polio funds to improving child health, and the lessons from polio will lead to better immunization systems for other diseases.”
Economic modeling has found that polio eradication would save at least $40–50 billion between 1988 and 2035, mostly in low-income countries, according to the World Health Organization.
Gates has expressed his dream for a world without diseases, such as AIDS, tuberculosis or malnourishment. He is confident that one day this dream will become a reality, writing, “We can’t put a date on these events, and we don’t know the sequence, but we’re confident of one thing: The future will surprise the pessimists.”