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Science in society – politics, development and social justice.

Polio – forgotten but not gone

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A young girl's right leg bends backwards at the knee like a bow as her father leads he by the hand down a clinic corridor

Consequence of polio - too many children must suffer a similar fate

For centuries polio has maimed and killed children across the world. Like all diseases it struck out at all echelons of society, from Presidents down, but it disproportionately affected the poor.

The virus transmits because of insanitary and unhygienic conditions. It is spread in faeces, infecting a victim with their food or water. It shreds the nervous system, attacking motor-neurons, paralysing the victim.

Polio kills the poorest and most marginalised of the world’s population. Those who do not drink clean water; who cannot wash their hands; those who are compelled to live in filth bereft of sanitation.

It is grievously unfair that children still suffer from this disease. This pathogen that only infects humans, that does not live long outside of its human host, that we have had a vaccine to combat for nearly 60 years.

Up to 90 per cent of those infected show no symptoms. This virus passes by so many; silently passing through en route to those few to destroy their fragile bodies.

In 60 years we have rid this monster from the nurseries of Europe and the Americas, from much of Africa and Asia. We have cut the number of cases from 300,000 in 1988 to 800 in 2003. Yet still India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria endure.

In Nigeria the fears of what the vaccine might do have stymied eradication attempts. Concerns that it may make people sterile, or transmit HIV, have left sections of the population un-protected.

Although India is the country of the uber-wealthy, four of the ten richest people live there, it remains desperately poor. Half a billion people living in poverty turn slum-dogs into incubators.

Pakistan, one of the last frontiers of the world, is too lawless to benefit from the efforts of health officials. Un-manned drones and warlord’s bands roam the hills, cutting off whole sections of the population from the vaccine programme.

Afghanistan as a country has suffered too much over the last forty years. The nation is ripping itself apart; those most at risk suffer greatest from this civil war, and disease always follows hard behind conflict.

I rage against the injustice that those central Asian and central African states must endure; the horrors of man’s inhumanity to man and the world’s most insidious killers.

It is as if some febrile mind concocted a monstrous joke. Nations cursed to be occupied by empires and trampled by armies can shake all this off only to remain smothered by disease.

The truth that my mind always returns to is that we can eradicate polio. We revelled in our ability to best such a killer as smallpox. Now polio is waiting to be picked off. No other animal can carry it, no insect transmit it. We have a working vaccine and international consensus.

However the consensus has not translated into renewed impetus to eradicate this virus.

It appears the movement to halt polio has reached a point of equilibrium. I can see focus shifting from polio eradication to the control of other virulent diseases. Polio is no longer has the impact on global health as HIV, malaria or TB. There is too much pulling focus. However a final concerted effort must be made.

Image from public domain – produced by the CDC

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