It seems worlds away, but there was once a time – just ask your parents or grandparents, because it was only 57 years ago – that children everywhere were crippled by polio. It would sweep through every summer like some sort of biblical plague, and leave behind its telltale trail of crutches, wheelchairs, leg braces, deformed limbs, iron lungs, and child-sized coffins. Then, on April 12, 1955, in Ann Arbor Michigan Dr. Jonas Salk’s injectable polio vaccine was declared “safe, effective, and potent”.
As a new mother, I can’t possibly imagine the fear of knowing that every summer my child’s number might come up. Would he be strong enough? Would he survive? What would his quality of life be afterward? And then to hear that there was a vaccine that would save him and all other children, I can’t imagine a better feeling. Except, maybe, when Dr. Salk announced that he was not going to patent the vaccine, that he would choose not to profit from it, to give it to the world. “Could you patent the sun?” he said.
A few years later, Dr. Albert Sabin developed the OPV – oral polio vaccine – and the world was once again changed forever. Because of its low cost and ease of use, the OPV has made it possible to imagine a world where every single child, rich and poor, is protected from polio. Since the World Health Organization (WHO) launched its polio initiative in 1988, OPV has reached billions of children and the number of reported polio cases is down 99%. Countries the world thought would struggle with polio forever are now on the brink of being totally rid of the disease. India, one such country, just celebrated its first year without a single case of wild poliovirus, and countries like Pakistan, Nigeria, and Afghanistan are not far behind.
The WHO says the world faces “the best—and perhaps last—chance to stop polio forever.” There has only been one disease ever eradicated from the planet, and that’s smallpox. We are literally just a few years away from completely eradicating polio. The best way that you can help stop polio from ever making a comeback is to support the WHO Global Polio Eradication Initiative. It is also essential that until polio is completely eradicated every child born gets vaccinated. It doesn’t take much for a small outbreak to undo all the hard work of the WHO, Dr. Sabin, Dr. Falk, and countless other medical professionals who have traveled into secluded areas, stopped children at bus stations, and dedicated their lives to ending the polio nightmare, once and for all.
For other ways that you can help fight polio, and the other diseases that steal a lifetime of firsts from thousands of children every year, visit my friends at Shot@Life. Together with these groups, we can save children now and forever from the horrors of polio.