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How Polio Virus emerged, its vaccine, history and eradication in India.

Updated: Jan 7, 2023

Every one of us must have had Polio drops, if you don't remember than ask your Parents as the generation of 1990s is used to it. Now a days it's common to see Polio vaccine volunteers from the government or any NGO going around the streets to ask for any newborn children that needs polio vaccines but down the line back in history it wasn't the case the vaccine was not available everywhere and it was a big issue to see several Polio epidemics especially between 1948 and 1955 especially in the western nations, people used to avoid public gathering and also the contact with others. As we just saw with the COVID, habits of people changed and physical contacts such as the handshakes and hugs were avoided at public gathering.

Let's know the history of Polio and its vaccine.

What is Polio?

Polio, or poliomyelitis, is a disabling and life-threatening disease caused by the poliovirus. It spreads from person to person and can infect a person’s spinal cord, causing paralysis (can’t move parts of the body). It lives in an infected person’s throat and intestines.

Its symptoms usually are similar to flu such as:

  • Sore throat

  • Fever

  • Tiredness

  • Nausea

  • Headache

  • Stomach pain

Not everyone infected with polio develop more serious symptoms while for some the symptoms last for only 2 to 5 days. Why this was a serious disease is, as for the people who used to develop serious symptoms develop infection of the covering of the spinal cord and/or brain or the paralysis.

Like we saw during the COVID times the isolated wards to treat patients, during those times when polio vaccine wasn't there the patients were treated in isolation wards. Some people with polio whose breathing muscles were paralyzed were placed in large machines called iron lungs. These machines helped them breathe and may have helped them live longer.

Even children who seem to fully recover can develop new muscle pain, weakness, or paralysis as adults, 15 to 40 years later.

How was Polio vaccine developed?

It is said that Dr. Jonas E. Salk developed the polio vaccine in 1955, it was first tested on 1.8 million children in the first, second, and third grades across the United States.

Later in 1961 Dr. Albert B. Sabin develops a second polio vaccine that is licensed in the U.S. The Sabin vaccine, using live but attenuated virus, could be given in drops through the mouth and therefore became known as the oral poliovirus vaccine (OPV).

Slowly by the time cases for polio declined after the emergence of these vaccines. As Canada, having suffered its worst outbreak in 1953 (almost 9,000 cases of all types of polio), quickly began production of the Salk and Sabin vaccines, and in 1965 only three cases of polio were reported. Similarly, Finland, Belgium, Denmark and then the global campaign started on using the Falk and Sabin vaccines.

How it became a global campaign and use of Vaccine in India

  • It was a collective effort as Rotary International launched its ambitious dream to eradicate polio in 1985.

  • A pilot polio immunization activity was conducted in Delhi in 1994, targeting one million children up to three years of age.

  • In 1988, the World Health Assembly voted to launch the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI). It was initiative along with Rotary International, UNICEF and other organizations.

  • By the year 2000 the number of new cases of paralytic polio had been reduced from more than 250,000 per year to approximately 1,000–2,000.

Also, earlier Polio wasn't considered a much serious disease in many other countries including India because of less awareness and less rate of recognition to any polio cases but later a lameness survey was conducted in 1970s and it was learned to considerable surprise that 5 to 9 of every 1,000 schoolchildren had evidence of lameness due to paralytic polio.

It was also noted that until early 1990s India was hyperendemic for polio, with an average of 500 to 1000 children getting paralyzed daily. Within two decades, India received ‘Polio-free certification’ from World Health Organization on the 27 March 2014, with the last polio case being reported in Howrah in West Bengal on 13 January 2011.

It was a high commitment at every level led to policy makers, health workers, frontline workers, partners and community volunteers, working in tandem to deliver life-saving polio drops to every child wherever they were, be it at home, in school, or in transit. As we saw during COVID times when India started its vaccination programme there was a bit of vaccine hesitancy among people and the response wasn't high initially, similar was the case with Polio initially.

WHO reported, Vaccinations were conducted in close to 700 000 booths staffed with around 1.2 million vaccinators and 180 000 supervisors on Polio Ravivar (Polio Sunday) this year, who worked with the support from partners and volunteers from WHO, UNICEF, Rotary and other civil society organizations.

This was done by working with volunteers from local communities in the microplanning of Supplementary Immunization Activities and engaging with community and religious leaders to identify and address concerns so that coverage could be increased in less visible clusters of unimmunized children.

Also, currently there is no cure for paralytic polio and no specific treatment and only physical therapy can help with arm or leg weakness caused by polio and might improve long-term outcomes.

stay tuned for more.

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With Inputs from WHO



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