In A Rush?
Back in the year of the original Die Hard movie, 1988, nearly 350,000 were crippled by polio worldwide. Fast forward to 2014 and that number was 360. Whip out your calculator and be amazed at that 99.9% reduction.
If vaccines could talk, they’d share stories about the billions of lives AND healthcare dollars saved over the past half-century. They’d talk about their retired star, the smallpox vaccine, who can hang up his jersey after a successful career. And to really captivate the audience, they’d tell the dramatic story of polio eradication; a global campaign standing up to terrorism, geographical constraints, and anti-vaccination attitudes.
Today, only Pakistan and Afghanistan have true endemic cases of polio. I’m awestruck that India is polio-free and that the entire continent of Africa was polio-free for over a year.
But look deeper – the journey is littered with peril and drama. The story of polio eradication is like The Bourne Identity meets Behind Enemy Lines meets the Jungle Book meets Kill Bill. I’ll highlight a few tidbits about terrorism opposition, continued research, anti-vaccine attitudes, and heroic female leads in prevention, but I encourage anyone and everyone to read more. The near-victory over polio will make one of the greatest public health victories the world has ever seen.
Polio Vaccinators Step Up to ISIS, Boko Haram, and the Pakistani Taliban.
Spoiler Alert: Terrorists Lose.
Where exactly do the world’s most infamous enemies fit in with the poliovirus campaign? Well, earlier this year, the Islamic State (ISIS) actually granted permission to Syrian humanitarian organizations to proceed with immunization campaigns. Crazy, I know. Was it propaganda? Was there a sinister motive? Regardless, with increasing tensions with the West, ISIS maniacs then began cracking down on humanitarian organizations. Volunteers aren’t having it and Syrian vaccination efforts press on.
Switch the scene to Nigeria. Schoolgirl-snatchers, Boko Haram, uses violence to hinder polio vaccination efforts in Nigeria but President Muhammadu Buhari isn’t phased. He is still leading the charge on making Nigeria polio-free by 2017.
Pakistan is a different story and still the world’s largest reservoir for the polio virus. The Taliban have gone as far as car bombings and assassinations to halt vaccination but do you think that’s stopping the fight?
You guessed right. It’s not.
The Superwomen Who Cannot be Stopped.
More than 200 Syrian women, in volatile areas like Aleppo and Dar’a, risk their lives every day to save children from polio. This one deserves a slow clap and a loud cheer. These women smack danger in the face to dispel misconceptions about the vaccines, teach about proper hygiene, and are the main foot soldiers in the anti-polio war in the Middle East and India.
The words of Rihanna Qasar, a health worker in Pakistan, says it all:
Allah has already decided my fate. Fighting this disease is a kind of jihad for me.
Another story that inspires beyond words is one Senior Polio Officer for the Gates Foundation, Dr. Ananda Bandyopadhay, told me about a woman crossing a flooded river, children in arms, to get her little ones vaccinated.
No terrorist threat or weather calamity will stop a dedicated mother.
What about Anti-Vax folks in the Islamic world?
Recently, 4,000 parents in Pakistan refused the polio vaccination for their children. Now I’m not sure who’s to blame here but there’s a widespread conspiracy theory that the West is using polio campaigns to sterilize Muslims. This claim is backed by Catholic Bishops in Kenya who think female hormones in the vaccines are the culprit. This is where volunteers like the Syrian aid agencies and Muslim clerics come in and help eradicate myths.
After all, millions of Muslim children have gotten their polio vaccine in the past 20 years and I’m pretty sure many of them grew up to pro-create. Debunked.
The Anti-Vax Crowd back Home and Vaccine-Derived Poliovirus.
Sorry gang. As much as I love the banter, you’re losing this one. Yes, proper sanitation and hygiene, are critical in containing the spread of this water-borne illness but the polio vaccination, regardless of what meme you see, is largely responsible for the 99.9% reduction in cases.
Anti-polio vaccination websites use scare tactics about vaccine-derived poliovirus (VDPV), which is a real entity and was recently seen in Ukraine. But you can prevent VDPV by maintaining herd immunity. Kids that receive the oral polio virus (OPV) shed weakened variations of the virus and if un- or underimmunized kids are running around, they can contract vaccine-derived polio. Here’s the conundrum: OPV is easier to administer, cheaper than the injection, and the fastest way is immunize large populations.
Of the three billion polio vaccinations handed out since 2000, about 760 cases of VDPV have been described. 760 cases of VDPV weighed against the 10 million prevented cases of polio seems like an annoying opportunity cost but it’s not acceptable and the public health world is still taking innovative steps. New research strategies have redefined protocols with the inactivated poliovirus vaccine (IPV – the one we get in the US) to reduce the spread of VDPV and high-risk countries, such as Nepal and Pakistan, are on board.
Got a reason polio can’t be defeated? This powerhouse has an answer.
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