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Battling Polio: Important Milestones, Ongoing Challenges

By Kristine Goodwin

This month marked a major milestone in a massive international effort to eradicate polio from the world’s second-most populated nation, India. On Feb. 11, dignitaries convened in Delhi to recognize the country’s third year without any polio cases, and next month, an international commission will consider certifying India as polio-free.

But the race isn’t over just yet.

Despite the progress in India—and worldwide—several countries continue to battle the transmission of poliovirus, an incurable disease that spreads one person at a time, invading the brain and spinal cord and causing paralysis.

CDC flight map

An increasingly connected world means that poliovirus and other vaccine-preventable diseases are but a plane trip away.

During the same week that India reached its public health milestone, a new case of wild poliovirus Type 1 was reported in Kabul, and two were reported in Pakistan. The first new case in Afghanistan since 2002 is probably linked to neighboring Pakistan. According to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative website, this latest case in Kabul underscores the ongoing risk polio continues to pose to children everywhere. In fact, poliovirus transmission is ongoing. In 2013, 400 polio cases were reported from a handful of countries, including Afghanistan, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, and Syrian Arab Republic.

An increasingly connected world means that transmission of poliovirus, and other vaccine-preventable diseases, is but a plane trip away (see right). The vast network of flights that traverse the globe every day offer efficient pathways for these infections to spread and take hold. An unvaccinated U.S. resident could become infected while traveling abroad, or someone infected with the poliovirus could travel to the U.S. With more than 53 million people passing through Denver International Airport alone every year, it’s not a stretch to imagine scenarios where a single business traveler or student returning from studies abroad could return home after having been exposed to the disease. “The point,” says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Dr. Greg Wallace, “is that one person infected with polio is all it takes to start the spread of polio to others if they are not protected by vaccination.”

Here in the U.S., most Americans have not seen the effects of polio, which was eliminated in 1979. At greatest risk are people who travel to areas with polio cases, and people who have not received the polio vaccine or who did not receive all recommended doses. Because the poliovirus is alive somewhere, mass vaccination is needed everywhere—even in countries that have not seen the devastating effects in decades. As long as polio remains in the world, vaccination will be necessary.

Kristine Goodwin is a freelance writer and health policy researcher living in Centennial, CO with her husband and three daughters. She contracts with the organizations like the Colorado Children’s Immunization Coalition to research and write about immunization and other public health policies that matter to her.

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