November 10, 2013

SMILOWITZ: 57 Years Later, We’re Still Paralyzed by Polio

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If you type the words “Cornell” and “polio” into your Google search engine, the first result you’ll see is a link to an article from The Cornell Daily Sun’s digital archives. The article, which dates back to Nov. 14, 1956, is entitled “Salk Urges Adult Vaccination, Predicts Freedom From Polio.” The news clipping begins with this statement:

“Dr. Jonas E. Salk today recommended that adults up to age 50 take shots of Salk polio vaccine. It they do, and if all children are vaccinated, then 1957 could be the first year of complete or nearly complete freedom from paralysis by polio, the Pittsburgh scientist predicted.”

It is quite eerie to read this statement and reflect on how, more than 50 years ago, Cornellians were reading breaking news stories about the creation of the polio vaccine. I think it’s safe to say that no one could have predicted that the world — 50 years after the publication of that article — would be nearly free of polio. According to the World Health Organization, as of April 2013, only three countries (Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan) remained polio-endemic. However, within the last seven months, it seems as though everything has changed. It is extremely heartbreaking that almost 57 years after that story was first published, we are now facing the threat of a massive polio outbreak.

About a month ago, it was confirmed that the poliovirus had been seen in Syria for the first time in 14 years. Although there have been polio outbreaks in the past (in fact, it was reported as recently as Oct, 1 that Somalia has witnessed 175 cases of polio since April 2013), this particular outbreak has proven to be a more dangerous threat to the rest of the world. A virus that is transmitted via contaminated food and water, polio can spread rapidly among children, especially within the unsanitary and debilitating conditions of the refugee camps within and outside of Syria.

In a Reuters report last week, the WHO stated that the virus most likely reached Syria from Pakistan, which is one of the three remaining polio-endemic countries, and that the spread of the virus poses a threat to all children across the Middle East. As a result, the WHO has repeatedly warned the world that as long as a single child remains infected with the disease, children everywhere are at risk.

With this warning in mind, German scientists are now claiming that Europe also faces the threat of being exposed to polio, as Syrian refugees are not only fleeing to neighboring countries, but to countries within Europe as well. Furthermore, most European countries use inactivated polio vaccine (IPV) rather than oral polio vaccine (OPV), which is a live form of immunization. So, while IPV is effective at preventing polio from occurring, it isn’t as effective at providing protection from infection if the virus is actively circulating. Thus, it is very possible that the virus, which hasn’t been seen in Europe for decades, could be reintroduced to the continent.

The Syrian Civil War has been going on for more than two years now, and it seems that there is no end in sight. Ultimately, as the bloodshed continues and the Syrian people suffer, the consequences of war and armed conflict are far-reaching and immediate for everyone throughout the world. It only takes one small event to cause a negative and disastrous chain reaction of global proportions. Although the origins of that one event are shrouded in mystery, the reintroduction of a disease that was so close to being eradicated is a deplorable testament to the horrors of war and its devastating ramifications for every person on this planet. So, exactly three days before the 57th publication anniversary of The Sun’s once-hopeful and promising news story, I urge you to consider the tragic irony in the fact that mankind has had the ability to eradicate polio for more than 50 years, and yet we still find ourselves living in a world that is not yet free from polio paralysis.