With spread of vaccination, polio can be eradicated

By Janet Stevens / The Bulletin

If you were born, as I was, in the earliest years of the Baby Boom, you may have some recollections of polio.

You may, for example, have attended a gathering and have had another child in the group fall ill with the disease a few days later. You may have seen the panic that news put your parents in. You may remember, or still know, adults on crutches and in wheelchairs as a result of the illness.

The disease was more personal for Cort Vaughan of Bend, who caught the virus at age 2. Now semi-retired and a member of the Greater Bend Rotary Club, Vaughan is chair of its Polio Plus committee and through it, a part of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. The initiative combines the efforts of Rotary International, the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Unicef.

The initiative, begun in 1988, had come oh, so close to its goal, only to see it slip out of reach in the early 2000s when rumors in Nigeria about the vaccine’s safety led many parents there to refuse it for their children. The numbers tell the tale:

In 1988, Vaughan says, about 365,000 cases of polio were reported in 26 countries worldwide. By the turn of the century, that number had dropped to 480 in only 10 countries. Then the problems in Nigeria began and by 2001, according an information pamphlet prepared by the Connecticut Department of Public Health, some 1,906 cases were reported in 16 countries.

Members of the initiative didn’t give up. Rather, they redoubled their efforts and, in the case of Nigeria, began manufacturing the vaccine locally to assure citizens it was safe. The hard work is paying off, Vaughan says.

He notes that by 2011 polio was found in 16 countries, at least two of which had been polio free for several years. Today, it’s found only in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria and Chad, and reported cases have dropped from more than 600 last year to 171 so far this year.

It will, he believes, take at least five years to eradicate polio completely. The places it is still found are among the remotest on the planet, he says, and delivering and administering the vaccine with the assistance of local Rotarians and officials is challenging.

So why should Americans care about ridding the planet of polio?

First, though most people who get the disease show no symptoms, the results can be devastating for those who do. Only a tiny percentage will get paralytic polio, but as many as 5 percent of children and 30 percent of adults who do will die as a result. Others will suffer varying degrees of weakness in their limbs, even enough difficulty breathing to require mechanical assistance.

Second, though new cases of polio have not been reported in the U.S. since 2005, when four unvaccinated children in a Minnesota Amish community became ill, that doesn’t guarantee the disease cannot crop up again. That’s what happened in Chad. It was polio free for years, only to have someone bring it in from the outside.

Third, polio really can be eradicated. The virus lives only in humans. Given enough time and enough vaccinations, it will die for lack of a place to live.

Meanwhile, that the U.S. outbreak wasn’t worse is no miracle but the result of what doctors call the herd effect. Because so many Minnesotans had been vaccinated, the disease could not get enough of a toehold to spread.

And that, it seems to me, is the best possible case to make for immunizing children on schedule, as the CDC says we should. It takes at least an 80 percent immunization rate to create the herd effect, and there are schools in Central Oregon that fall far below that number.

I don’t know about you, but I’d be devastated if a child, grandchild or friend came down with polio, or, for that matter, whooping cough, diphtheria or tetanus, especially because for most children, protection is only a doctor’s visit away.