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The Fight Against Polio

By Charles Apple The Spokesman-Review

The world has made progress in the fight against polio, but it still has a ways to go before the disease is eradicated completely. That’s been the goal of the World Health Organization since 1988. Polio mainly affects children under age 5.

Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates will be in Spokane May 18 to talk about polio eradication and the role his Gates Foundation is taking in supporting that goal. Here’s a look at polio and its status in the world today.

Polio mainly affects children under the age of 5
1 in 200 polio infections lead to irreversible paralysis
Up to 10% of polio patients die when their breathing muscles stop working.

HOW MUCH POLIO IS THERE STILL IN THE WORLD?

In 1988, wild polio virus was active in more than 125 countries around the world and paralyzed about a thousand children a day. Immunization efforts since then have reached nearly 3 billion children. In 2016 — the most recent year for which data is available — only 46 cases were found worldwide.

Graph of worldwide polio infections
Key for worldwide polio infection graph

WHERE DOES POLIO STILL EXIST?

In 1988, the World Health Organization launched the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, which aimed to rid the world of polio in just 12 years — by the year 2000. The Initiative fell just a bit short of that goal. The polio virus is still endemic in the three countries shown below.

World map of the spread of polio
World map key
Jonas Salk
Dr. Jonas Salk

BUT POLIO IS GONE FROM THE UNITED STATES, RIGHT?

Yes, thanks to a vaccine that first went into widespread use in the U.S. on April 12, 1955. Dr. Jonas Salk refused to patent the vaccine he had developed. “There is no patent,” Salk said. “Could you patent the sun?”

In 1961, Dr. Albert Savin perfected a live polio vaccine that could be taking orally — as opposed to by injection, like Salk’s. This made it easier and faster — not to mention cheaper — to give immunizations.

By 1979, the United States had been declared free of polio. Work continues to eradicate the disease from the rest of the planet.

REPORTED PARALYTIC POLIO CASES AND DEATHS IN THE U.S.

Chart of the decline of polio in the United States