October 24 is observed as World Polio Day all across the world. It marks the date of birth of Jonas Salk, who led the first team to develop a vaccine against poliomyelitis. Commonly known as polio, this highly contagious disease is caused by the poliovirus. The virus spreads through the faecal-oral route, invading the body’s central nervous system. It multiplies rapidly and destroys the nerve cells that activate muscles, causing irreversible paralysis in hours.
There is no cure for polio, but there are safe, effective vaccines which, given multiple times, protect a child for life. If sufficient numbers are immunised against polio, the virus is unable to find susceptible children to infect and dies out.
To understand the significance of World Polio Day, we must take a look at the history of polio and the eradication efforts that have reduced polio worldwide by 99%. There is historical evidence that the poliovirus has existed throughout human history, with the earliest depiction found in 3000-year-old Egyptian hieroglyph. The early twentieth century saw several waves of the polio epidemic sweep different parts of the world.
In 1938, Franklin D Roosevelt, the then-president of the United States of America launched a campaign, the March of Dimes, to develop a vaccine. Dr Jonas Stalk successfully developed the first vaccine against polio in 1955 – an injectable, inactivated polio vaccine. In 1961, Dr Albert Sabin developed a "live" oral polio vaccine (OPV) which rapidly became the vaccine of choice for most national immunisation programmes globally.
However, even during the 1980s, wild poliovirus was endemic in 125 countries, paralysing more than 1000 children every day. This is when the World Health Assembly voted to launch the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) in 1988. Since then, more than two billion children have been immunised against polio thanks to the cooperation of more than 200 countries and 20 million volunteers, becoming the largest public health initiative the world has known.
Polio vaccination drives in India faced some unique challenges, given the vast populace and tropical climate. In 1995, following World Health Organization’s (WHO) GPEI, India launched the Pulse Polio immunisation program aimed at 100% coverage. In 2014, India was officially declared polio-free, along with the rest of the South-East Asia Region. Thanks to the singular commitment of the Indian Government at all levels, partners of the GPEI, notably WHO, Rotary International and UNICEF, polio was tackled head-on. India’s success now serves as an example that eradication of polio is indeed possible through globally concentrated efforts.
Befittingly, the theme of World Polio Day 2020 is “Stories of Progress: Past and Present.” The aim is to acknowledge the progress made so far in the struggle to eradicate polio as well as to recognise the efforts of everyone involved in the process.