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Fight against Polio

From antiquity to today


An Egyptian stele, dating from 1403–1365 BC, portrays a priest leaning on a staff with a withered leg – a pertinent reminder of how long polio has been crippling children and why it is necessary to finish the job.


Iron lungs fill a hospital ward in the United States in the 1930s: with 5–10% of polio victims suffering paralysis of the muscles that regulate breathing, wards filled with iron lungs were common. Once admitted to an iron lung, children remained there for the rest of their lives.


In 1921, future US President Franklin D. Roosevelt contracted polio and was paralyzed from the waist down. In 1938, he helped found the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, whose drive to help find a vaccine became the highly publicized “March of Dimes”, raising money for the rehabilitation of polio victims and the development of a polio vaccine.


In 1955, Dr. Jonas Salk, with support from the March of Dimes, developed the first injectable, inactivated polio vaccine (IPV).


Dr. Albert Sabin developed live oral polio vaccine (OPV) in 1961, also with the support of the March of Dimes. OPV continues to be the preferred choice for vaccination in endemic countries.

After a record 57,268 children in the United States were paralyzed by polio in 1952, US schoolchildren were among the first to receive the polio vaccine.


WHO Director-General Dr. Halfdan Mahler launches the Global Polio Eradication Initiative – a partnership between the World Health Organization, Rotary International, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and UNICEF – at the World Health Assembly in 1988.


The final case of polio in the Americas was recorded in 1991, in a two-year-old boy named Luis Fermin Tenorio.


The partners in the GPEI effort, the World Health Organization, Rotary International, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and UNICEF, have launched a new Strategic Plan targeting the final remaining geographical pockets of poliovirus to fulfil Rotary’s vision and End Polio Now.


In 1988, when the polio eradication initiative was launched, more than 350,000 children were paralyzed each year in more than 125 endemic countries. Repeated immunization campaigns have seen that number fall to 561 cases this year in 15 infected countries (as of 21 July, 2010). Only four countries worldwide have never stopped poliovirus transmission (Nigeria, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan).


If this Strategic Plan can be fully funded, every last child will be free to receive polio vaccine, and by extension, every last child will have the chance to live a life free from polio.

Bivalent oral polio vaccine – which targets both remaining serotypes of wild poliovirus with one vaccine – was first used in Afghanistan in December 2009 and will be a key tool in the final steps to polio eradication.

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