The End of the Polio Era Is Near

According to the World Health Organization and other public health authorities, the African Continent has been declared free of wild polio. This leaves Central Asia and parts of India as the only regions in the world where wild polio can still be found. A disease that once was found all around the world is about to join smallpox in being eradicated.

The history of the polio vaccine is long and complex. The first epidemic of polio in the United States was documented in 1894. It wouldn’t be until 1959 that the first polio vaccine was licensed in the United States, building on decades of work by researchers from all over the world. In 1994, polio was declared eliminated from the Americas. By 2002, it was eliminated in Europe.

From then on, the struggle to get everyone vaccinated met some challenges. The Syrian Civil War caused delays in vaccination in that part of the world, and a return of polio to the Middle East. Military conflicts in Africa and Asia delayed vaccination efforts. Yet those efforts continued. By 2016, Type 2 polio vaccine was discontinued to prevent vaccine-associated cases of that type. Now, in 2020, Africa is finally free of polio.

This doesn’t mean that vaccination against polio will stop in Africa. Even in the United States, polio vaccine — the Salk vaccine using inactivated (dead) virus — is still given. It is still given just in case there is a reintroduction of the wild virus. Once polio is declared eradicated, the polio vaccine will go the way of the smallpox vaccine… It would be one less vaccine for children to get.

Author: René F. Najera, DrPH

I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, an online project by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. All opinions expressed on these blog posts are not necessarily those of the College or any of my employers. Check out my professional profile on LinkedIn: Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @EpiRen