Polio and progress

In most of the world polio is a mere bogeyman, a shadow that drifts through our awareness every October 24, the day global health agencies call World Polio Day. Few suffered, or now recall, the polio epidemics that menaced cities from the late 1800s until 1952, when Jonas Salk invented a vaccine. 

Scientists like Salk, politicians, public health agencies and Rotary International made it a global mission to wipe out poliovirus: they cooperated globally and aggressively attacked a scourge that causes muscle weakness, paralysis and sometimes death. Most of us are lucky today because of them: they were smart.

Lately we haven’t been so smart – and now the bogeyman is becoming a real threat.

Earlier this year health authorities thought poliomyelitis had almost entirely vanished except in Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan – and in those countries, there were 40 per cent fewer cases in 2013 than in 2012, said the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.

Because the virus only lives in humans, it was hoped that immunization through global cooperation would finish polio off within a generation, and that poliomyelitis would join smallpox as an extinct human disease.

But this month polio surfaced again in war-torn Syria for the first time since 1999, and more than 20 cases have been confirmed, reported the World Health Organization. It was reported again in the Horn of Africa, and a few cases were reported in China.

Meanwhile efforts to stop it elsewhere are being hindered by religious fundamentalists – and the rule of unintended consequences.

America’s “war on terror” coincidentally sparked opposition to vaccines in Taliban territory, after a Pakistani doctor working with the United States reportedly used a fake vaccination campaign to get information from Osama bin Laden’s family.

Pakistani physician Shakil Afridi told a court he used the ruse  of a hepatitis-B vaccination campaign to try and get DNA from Osama bin Laden’s children, in Peshawar. The U.S. said it killed bin Laden in 2011, and last year a Pakistan court sentenced Afridi to 33 years in jail for treason.

Since Afridi’s admission, the Taliban has targeted health care workers delivering vaccines. The latest in some two dozen deaths were from bombings in Peshawar this month, reported the BBC.

Disease control is an example of human “progress,” a disputed and contentious word that’s fallen out of fashion lately. In addition to being out of fashion, “progress” has taken several steps backward.

Copyright © 2013 Deborah Jones