I picked up a copy of this week’s Time magazine at my health club today (gotta have something to read in the sauna…) and found an excellent article on global polio eradication.
Only three countries are still considered hotbeds of the disease–Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan–and money and man-and-woman-power are pouring into those countries in a determined effort to finish off polio, much as smallpox was eradicated in the 1970s.
It’s a remarkable story, and the article is worth a read. Consider this: as recently as 1988 polio killed or paralyzed 350,000 people worldwide, but thanks to an incredible combination of medical know-how, political will, and philanthropy (in particular the Gates Foundation), there were only 215 cases in 2012.
So back to my original question–one that I frequently hear from shot-weary parents–do American kids still need polio vaccine? After all, there hasn’t been an outbreak of wild polio in the U.S. (i.e., person-to-person transmission that wasn’t imported by a foreign traveler or very rare vaccine-related infections) since 1979. And polio epidemics spread via sewage-contaminated drinking water–definitely not a problem here. Yet we still routinely give children four doses of polio vaccine by the time they start kindergarten. This isn’t Afghanistan…can’t we just quit?
There are two main arguments for continuing polio vaccination until the virus is eradicated:
- The eradication effort in those three final countries is in danger of being derailed by terrorism and war. As reported in the Time article, Pakistan is a particular problem: more than a dozen vaccine workers have been murdered by the Taliban, who believe the eradication effort is really a U.S.-backed spy network.* Since polio can spread quickly, it wouldn’t take much disruption to see the case numbers mount up. And with the ease of modern travel, we could expect infected travelers to appear at least occasionally in the U.S., as has happened in the past.
- The idea of polio spreading through sewage-contaminated drinking water in the U.S. may seem remote, but as millions learned in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, sewage treatment facilities can fail. An infected traveler in the right place at the wrong time could open a polio Pandora’s box.
Okay, I’ll admit that the reappearance of polio epidemics in the U.S. would take a combination of long-shot coincidences. But given that we’re so close to eliminating polio (and thus polio vaccine) why take a chance? Best to hang in there vaccine-wise until we can do a polio victory dance.
*The Taliban’s fear of vaccine-worker spies isn’t entirely unfounded. A Pakistani doctor masquerading as a hepatitis-vaccine worker helped confirm Osama Bin Laden’s location just before Bin Laden was killed.