The fear and insecurity surrounding the Coronavirus pandemic may feel new to many of us, but it is strangely familiar to those who lived through the polio epidemic of the 20th century.
Before a vaccine was discovered in 1955, polio was the most feared disease of the 20th century, causing over 15,000 paralyses a year in the US and millions in the rest of the world. Every summer in the US the poliovirus started striking without warning like a silent killer. No one knew exactly how polio was transmitted or what caused it.
Like the coronavirus, most people (around 72%) who got infected with poliovirus didn't have visible symptoms, but could spread the virus for 2 weeks, before and after being infected. A quarter of infected patients developed flu-like symptoms that would last 2 to 5 days.But a smaller proportion of people with poliovirus infection developed more serious symptoms that affected the brain and spinal cord, leading to paralysis, permanent disability or death.
Jonas Salk, who led his team at the University of Pittsburg to develop the polio vaccine in 1955, and became the most celebrated scientist in the world, refused a patent for his work, saying the vaccine belonged to the people and that to patent it would be like "patenting the sun". Drug manufacturers made the vaccine available, reducing the world cases by 90% in 10 years. By the end of the 20th century, the polio threat had all but disappeared in the developed world, but was still harvesting young lives in the developing world.
Although the threat of polio has been contained in wealthy nations, the disease is still crippling children in the developing world every year. In 1988, an estimated 350,000 polio cases still occurred worldwide, and the 160 countries of the World Health Organization adopted a resolution for the eradication of polio by the year 2000 (still going on as of 2020)
Polio eradication is possible because the virus resides solely in humans and a vaccine is available. But until every country is polio-free, no country in the world is free from the risk of it.
As long as there is a polio transmission anywhere on the planet, all children in the world will need to be vaccinated against it, even in wealthy nations. The problem is that the countries where the virus is still transmitted are some of the poorest, where populations at risk are unable to get basic health services because of isolation, neglect, civil strife or war.
Creating a cold chain from vaccine production to the most remote places on earth was the logistical challenge that was handled by the World Health Organization. The eradication program strategy was to reach every child on the planet with a fresh oral vaccine preserved by a cold chain.
It is the largest public health initiative ever attempted by man, not only because it would rid the world of a deadly virus, but also because it will leave the infrastructure to fight other diseases.
India, a long time reservoir of the deadly virus (60% of polio cases in 2009), became polio-free in 2014, after years of relentless immunization campaigns. In 2019, there were 175 polio paralysis cases worldwide, in the last 3 remaining polio endemic countries: Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria.
I started covering the story in 1996 as a personal project after securing a grant from the Rotary Foundation, one of the program’s sponsors. After its first publication in Life magazine, I continued documenting the polio eradication effort on behalf of WHO, Rotary Foundation and publications throughout 15 countries in Asia and Africa, until 2014.
I often described polio as a virus targeting the poorest among us, and it is useful to notice that many countries I visited during the eradication campaign are torn by wars and civil strife today, even after a successful eradication of the virus: Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Mali, Niger, Chad. It shows that the virus itself was a symptom of societal dysfunction as much as lack of healthcare.
We can learn from the polio eradication program to fight the coronavirus.
1 - It is not a national emergency but a world problem.
2 - WHO is not perfect but it is the only organization able to fight the disease on a global scale.
3 - No country will be free of coronavirus until all countries are free from it
4 - The infrastructure is in place to distribute a vaccine when we have one.
5 - A virus (polio or corona) is not the great equalizer, as it harvests its victims among the most vulnerable part of the population: it accentuates existing social inequalities.
But the main difference between polio and coronavirus is that, after the polio vaccine, we were able to stalk the vaccine in every corner of the planet.
Today, without the vaccine, the Corona virus is stalking us.