There once was a time, even in living memory, when polio was a global threat that paralyzed children at alarming rates. Now, it has been almost entirely eliminated.

Cases and deaths have dropped by 99.9% since 1988, and, for the first time, defeating the debilitating disease is within reach. It’s an astounding feat if you consider that, in 1988, 350,000 polio cases were recorded across 125 countries. 

To put things in perspective, as of 2021, circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus type 2 (cVDPV2) cases are down to 195, thanks to the concerted efforts of health workers, governments, and the international community — all instrumental in achieving this historic milestone. 

But there's a catch: for polio to be eradicated, all cases must be stamped out. Unfortunately, the virus still remains endemic in two countries — Afghanistan and Pakistan — and disruptions in routine immunizations brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, political unrest, and conflict all threaten to derail the hard-won progress made to date. 

The key to ensuring this grim scenario never materializes is to quickly find solutions to these challenges. With strong political will, global cooperation, and solid public health foundations, the trend could be reversed. Here's what you should know about how we can make this happen.

What Is Polio?

Poliomyelitis — also known as polio — is a highly contagious viral disease that can either be wild or, in very rare cases, vaccine-derived. Once contracted, polio remains in the nervous system for life, sometimes causing lifelong physical limitations, including partial or total paralysis.

The wild strain of the poliovirus transmits itself via the fecal-oral route when virus particles contaminate food or water. It then enters the body through the mouth and multiplies in the intestine. Once there, it can either result in minor illness and mild symptoms or begin to attack cells in the spinal cord, which can lead to irreversible paralysis (1 in 200 cases). 

While there is no cure for polio, it can be prevented by safe and effective vaccination. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “almost all children (99%) who get all the recommended doses of vaccine will be protected from polio.” This means that a successful polio eradication strategy hinges on strong prevention and immunization programs, along with improved sanitation and close surveillance of cases.

What Are 3 Key Facts That People Should Know About It?

  • Polio is on the brink of eradication, but it remains endemic in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

  • While much progress has been made towards its elimination in recent years, political unrest, conflict, disruptions in routine immunization programs, and the COVID-19 pandemic threaten to reverse these gains.

  • To avoid this grim scenario, organizations such as the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) need at least $5.1 billion in support from governments and the private sector within the next five years. 

Who Is Most Affected, and Why?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), children under the age of five who have not received the polio vaccine are at a high risk of contracting the virus. In addition, the elderly, women, people whose immune system is weakened by other medical conditions, and pregnant women are particularly vulnerable. 

Geographically, countries with poor infrastructure and hygiene conditions are most affected, as the disease feeds on areas where clean water is hard to come by and where access to sanitation is lacking. In countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan, conflict and violence have fueled the spread of the virus by causing displacement and substantial disruptions in immunization campaigns.

However, everyone runs the risk of contracting polio as long as it continues to spread somewhere in the world. A polio case on any continent can spread to other regions, making eradication more challenging. Until it is eradicated globally, all countries will be susceptible to importing cases, putting the entire global population at risk — and ultimately, threatening the achievement of the United Nations’ Global Goals.

What Impact Is It Having on People’s Lives and the Fight Against Extreme Poverty?

Apart from its debilitating and sometimes fatal consequences, polio also hinders our ability to reach a world rid of extreme poverty. Its persistence not only keeps us from achieving Global Goal 3 for the good health and well-being of all, but it also has a ripple effect on the achievement of other goals — including Goal 4 for education, Goal 5 for gender equality, and Goal 8 for decent work and economic growth

Take education, for example. When children cannot attend school because of illness, they become less likely to develop their full potential and thrive in the workforce. As a result, countries with higher polio transmission rates have less economic growth and lower levels of education, exacerbating extreme poverty within vulnerable communities. At the family level, women often bear the brunt of the care work associated with polio, especially when it severely affects their children. This limits their ability to access equal opportunities within a given society.

Alternatively, children who lead healthy lives free from polio are more likely to experience satisfying working lives, which benefits the individual and the economy as a whole. According to estimates from GPEI, each dollar spent on polio eradication yields five times its amount on economic growth, which means that prioritizing health is one of the best ways to break the pattern, potentially saving millions of dollars — and ultimately lifting entire communities out of poverty.

Who Are the Key Players in Tackling the Issue?

Founded in 1988, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) is a public-private partnership that works to end polio for good by coordinating efforts of national governments, the WHO, Rotary International, the CDC, UNICEF, and more. Since its inception, GPEI has vaccinated more than half a billion children and mobilized $4 billion from world leaders across the globe. 

However, to continue making progress, the organization needs $5.1 billion over the next five years to scale up support for immunization in high-risk countries while implementing major health system transformation, cross-border emergency response, and surveillance. Eradicating polio won't be possible as long as rich countries such as the UK continue to cut funding or fail to renew pledges toward GPEI.

What Action Can We All Take to Eradicate Polio?

This World Polio Day, you can join Global Citizen by signing our petition calling on world leaders to prioritize and maintain funding towards GPEI in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Global Citizen Explains

Defeat Poverty

What’s Standing in the Way of Polio Eradication and What Can We Do About It?

By Sarah El Gharib