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The Resurgence of Polio
By Bill Hoagland
On July 21, a 20 year old man in the New York City area was diagnosed with polio. It turns out that he contracted the virus while traveling recently in Poland and Hungary. For religious reasons, this man had never been vaccinated for polio. The alarm bells have immediately sounded with recommendations that all young children not previously vaccinated in the New York City area be vaccinated for polio immediately.
Shortly after this news, we learned that the polio virus is also showing up in such places as England and Israel, where it hasn’t existed for years. This news was surprising to me because I thought that the only remaining places in the world where the polio virus still existed was in remote areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Upon a closer look, I found out that today, the polio virus exists in many parts of the world. So what the heck is going on with a disease that many of us thought had essentially been eradicated?
The easiest way to understand what has happened is to first understand some history about the polio vaccine and the two types of the polio virus that exist today. In 1952, there was a major outbreak of polio in the US, infecting some 30,000 children and resulting in 3,000 deaths. On a personal note, “Elsie”, one of my childhood friends, contracted polio during that epidemic and although she lived into her late 70’s, she was crippled for the rest of her life. Everyone who knew “Elsie” can attest to how devastating this disease can be.
Fortunately, by 1955, a trivalent inactivated polio virus vaccine, referred to as “IPV”, had been perfected. The IPV vaccine was given to children in a series of four shots while these children were between the ages of six months and four years. Most importantly, the IPV used an “inactive” form of the polio virus in the shots that were administered. In fact, the IPV vaccination was so effective that it became mandatory for all children in the US before they were allowed to attend school or daycare and by 1979, it was officially determined that the polio virus no longer existed in the US.
In the late 1980’s, an effort was made to eradicate polio on a world-wide basis. This effort was known as the Global Polio Eradication Initiative and was funded by a group of charitable organizations, including the Gates Foundation and Rotary International, of which I am a member. In order to inoculate children world-wide, it was necessary to use an oral vaccine instead of the vaccine given intravenously. This oral vaccine, referred to as “OPV”, involves the use of an “active” form of the polio virus rather than an “inactive” form. It was a one-dose vaccine, which makes it much easier to administer on a world-wide basis than the IPV method used in the US. At one point in the recent past, it appeared that this effort for world-wide eradication of polio could be achieved as there were essentially only two areas in the world—those remote portions of Afghanistan and Pakistan—where the polio virus still existed. That situation is no longer true.
Today, there are actually two forms of the polio virus: the “wild” form that existed in 1952 and that still exists in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and most recently in Mozambique and Malawi. The other form of the polio virus is believed to be a mutation of the active virus used in the oral polio vaccine. It is this variant that is now showing up in England, Israel and elsewhere, including the recent case in New York. This resurgence is believed to be the result of a failure to continue with world-wide polio vaccinations and that relates in part to the havoc caused by the COVID pandemic, the breakdown of medical services generally, the growing reluctance to receive any vaccinations and so on.
And looking for a minute only at the potential redevelopment of polio here in the US, one can see why this could happen even in the US, where the “wild” form of the polio virus was completely eradicated by 1979. We now have more children who are being homeschooled and therefore not required to be vaccinated for polio; we have parents who are now opposed to any vaccines for their children and we have the thousands of migrants coming across the southern border, many of whom presumably have never been vaccinated for polio. This is most unfortunate, as the IVP has been proven over time to be extremely effective and it is sad to see the potential for a recurrence of this horrible childhood disease here in our own country, especially when it is preventable.
For the sake of “Elsie”, even if the world-wide effort to eradicate this disease is unattainable (thanks to what has happened in Afghanistan), I hope we can at least see to it that all children in the US are vaccinated with the IPV vaccine before we have a significant outbreak here.
■ Bill Hoagland has practiced law in Alton for more than 50 years, but he has spent more than 70 years hunting, fishing and generally being in the great outdoors. His wife, Annie, shares his love of the outdoor life. Much of their spare time is spent on their farm in Calhoun County. Bill can be reached at email@example.com.