Polio is (almost) a thing of the past – and we have vaccines to thank

The “wild poliovirus” is nearly eradicated, with the only two countries where the virus remains endemic reporting just a handful of cases in 2022.

According to reports, Afghanistan reported five cases and Pakistan reported just two. These are the last two countries where wild poliovirus remains endemic, meaning it’s consistently present within a given region.

During the pandemic, the two countries recorded 22 cases combined following a lapse in immunization, Nature reported.

Poliovirus can be wiped out “with sustained, targeted and coordinated vaccination efforts,” according to Hamid Jafari, director of polio eradication at the World Health Organization (WHO), who praised both countries’ efforts. “Pakistan and Afghanistan have never been this close to reaching the goal of eradicating wild poliovirus (WPV1) concurrently,” Dr. Jafari said.

Vaccination campaigns back on track post-COVID

In Afghanistan, the five poliovirus cases recorded this year were in Nangarhar, an eastern region bordering Pakistan.

The vaccination campaigns in Afghanistan were largely interrupted by war and the COVID pandemic. However, according to the WHO official, the country seems to be getting back on track, marking significant improvements since late 2022.

“The quality of vaccination campaigns has improved remarkably since late 2022 in the east region of Afghanistan, and if such quality campaigns are sustained, endemic transmission in the region will be interrupted in the coming months,” Dr. Jafari said.

Pakistan, on the other hand, launched its first anti-polio vaccination campaign earlier this year. According to VOA, citing Pakistan’s national eradication program officials, “more than 360,000 health workers would deliver polio drops to at least 44.2 million children across 156 districts during the five-day campaign.”

Why polio vaccination matters

Since the development of the vaccine in the 1950s, followed by WHO’s campaigns starting in 1988, polio cases have gone down by 99%. The U.S. eradicated wild poliovirus in 1979.

Though small, risk remains, however. Almost exactly one year ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced the second case of polio in the U.S. since its eradication in 1979. An unvaccinated young man contracted the virus, likely due to “shedding” from an older, oral vaccine that contained weakened live virus. (The U.S. no longer uses this vaccine.)

“After children are vaccinated, they shed virus in their faeces for a few weeks. In under-vaccinated communities, this can then spread and mutate back to a harmful version of the virus,” Reuters reported at the time.

At the time, New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Mary T. Bassett advised New Yorkers that vaccines are the “greatest protection against the worst outcomes of polio, including permanent paralysis and even death.”

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