It’s true, polio has been eliminated in the United States.
But that doesn’t mean that we can stop vaccinating kids against polio yet.
Why Do We Still Vaccinate If Polio Has Been Eliminated?
For one thing, the last polio case in the United States was a lot more recent than 40 years ago.
What happened 40 years ago?
That was when we had the last endemic case of polio in the United States, in 1979. After that, in addition to cases of VAPP, there were at least 6 cases of imported paralytic poliomyelitis. In fact, the last case of wild polio in the United States was in 1993, just 26 years ago.
And just ten years ago, in 2009, was the very last case of VAPP, a patient with a long-standing combined immunodeficiency who was probably infected in the late 1990s, even though she didn’t develop paralysis until years later.
But still, why couldn’t we stop vaccinating against polio in the United States, even though polio isn’t eradicated yet? After all, we stopped using the smallpox vaccine in 1972, before smallpox was declared eradicated (1980).
While that is true, smallpox isn’t as contagious as polio and there hadn’t been a case of smallpox in the United States for over 30 years when we stopped using the vaccine.
Until wild polio is eradicated and the oral polio vaccine isn’t used anymore (OPV switch), we must continue to vaccinate against polio to prevent new outbreaks.
That is the polio eradication and endgame strategic plan.
Over the next few years, the world will hopefully switch to using just the injectable form of the polio vaccines, which eliminates the risk of VAPP.
But if we are so close, why not just stop vaccinating in those parts of the world that don’t have polio?
Because we are so close to eradicating polio.
Why take the risk of polio spreading from one of the remaining endemic countries, paralyzing kids, and putting eradication efforts further behind?
There is a lot more interest in polio these days, but not because we are close to eradicating this deadly disease, but rather because of the emergence of cases of acute flaccid myelitis (AFM).
Although the cases have a different cause, the symptoms of AFM are the same that we used to see during the outbreaks of polio that used to hit each summer in the pre-vaccine era.
Surprisingly, in most people, the poliovirus doesn’t actually cause any symptoms. They simply have an asymptomatic infection.
In some others, the poliovirus causes flu-like symptoms, including a fever, sore throat, nausea, and a headache – symptoms that last about 3 to 5 days.
Much more rarely, the poliovirus causes meningitis or paralysis.
It is these cases of paralytic polio that most people are aware of and that panicked parents during summers in the 1940s and 50s.
After having flu-like symptoms, those kids who would develop paralytic polio can develop pain and then flaccid paralysis.
“The most severe form, paralytic poliomyelitis, which is seen in less than 1% of patients, presents as excruciating episodes of pain in back and lower limbs. In children, the disease may present in biphasic form—a period of prodrome followed by a brief symptom-free period of 7 to 10 days and then appearance of asymmetrical paralysis of limbs. Flaccid paralysis is the hallmark with loss of deep tendon reflexes eventually.”
Mehndirattta et al on Poliomyelitis Historical Facts, Epidemiology, and Current Challenges in Eradication
Of course, polio wasn’t always called polio.
Other names have included infantile spinal paralysis, infantile paralysis, Heine-Medin disease, poliomyelitis anterior acuta, and acute anterior poliomyelitis.
The first use of the name “polio” came from Adolph Kussmaul, with his use of the term poliomyelitis anterior acuta, which was derived from the Greek polios “grey” and myelos “marrow” and itis “inflammation.” It was because he knew that it was caused by inflammation of the spinal cord gray matter, even if he didn’t know why.
Polio didn’t just suddenly appear in the middle of the 20th century though, it was likely around for ages.
In addition to an Egyptian funeral stele (a stone slab used as a monument) portraying Roma the Doorkeeper from 1500 BCE that suggests he had paralytic polio, archeologists have found evidence of polio in skeletons as far back as the Neolithic period.
Still, we don’t really know how long polio has been around and we don’t know why we began to see more cases in the mid-20th Century, although there are theories, including, ironically, about hygiene. While we often credit improved sanitation and hygiene for helping to reduce mortality from many diseases, some think that this actually set us up for polio outbreaks, as we were no longer exposed as infants, when we still had some maternal immunity.
The one thing that we do know is that we are on the verge of eradicating polio, as there are very cases now, in just a few countries.
Polio Timeline and Milestones
In addition to the more ancient discoveries about polio, there is a lot to learn about vaccines and vaccine-preventable diseases if we look at the major milestones of this important disease.
Although in the end it is a success story, the road to figuring out what caused polio symptoms and how polio could be prevented was very long.
Michael Underwood describes what is thought to be paralytic polio in his book A Treatise on the Diseases of Children, with General Directions for the Management of Infants from Birth in a section on “Debility of the Lower Extremities” (1789)
first reported outbreak of polio in Worksop, England (1835)
Jacob von Heine, head of an orthopedic hospital in Germany, publishes a monograph that describes 29 cases of paralytic polio, and actually attributes the condition to inflammation of the anterior horns of the spinal cord, although the cause was still not known (1840)
first use of the term poliomyelitis by Adolph Kussmaul (1874)
Nils August Bergenholtz reports on an outbreak of paralytic polio in Sweden (1881)
Karl-Oskar Medin, a pediatrician who reported on a polio epidemic in Sweden (1887), later presents his findings at the Tenth International Conference in Berlin (1890)
the first major outbreak in the United States is documented in Rutland County, Vermont and causes 132 cases of paralysis and 18 deaths (1894)
Ivar Wickman tracks cases of polio during an epidemic in Sweden in 1905 and was the first to suggest that polio was contagious and that you could get it from “those afflicted with the abortive type” (1907)
although they don’t actually identify the poliovirus, Dr. Karl Landsteiner and Dr. Erwin Popper identify that a virus causes polio when they inject material from the spinal cord of a child who had recently died with polio into the peritoneum of two monkeys, both of which soon developed paralytic polio (1908)
Simon Flexner, first discovers polio antibodies (1911), but unlike other researchers at the time, pushes the theory that polio was spread by the olfactory route, instead of the fecal-oral route, which was why we saw the development of nose sprays, etc., to try and prevent polio, none of which worked of course
a large polio epidemic in the United States causes at least 27,000 cases and 6,000 deaths (1916)
Philip Drinker and Louis Agassiz Shaw invent the first iron lung, the Drinker respirator (1929)
Frank M. Burnet and Jean Macnamara proposed that there were antigenically different strains of poliovirus (1931)
John R. Paul and James D. Trask help figure out how polio was spread by identifying the polio virus in human waste and sewage samples (1932)
Maurice Brodie and John Kolmer have unsuccessful field trials of early polio vaccines, including allergic reactions and vaccine induced polio because of poor attenuation (1935)
Sister Elizabeth Kenny establishes a clinic in Australia to treat polio survivors (1932) and later publishes her treatment recommendations, Infantile Paralysis and Cerebral Diplegia (1937)
the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis is founded by FDR to stop polio (1937)
Carl Kling found traces of the poliovirus in the Stockholm sewage system (1942)
the Sister Kenny Institute is built in Minneapolis, as her treatment methods become widely accepted after years of controversy (1942)
the U.S. Army Neurotropic Virus Commission, including Albert Sabin, gets a grant from the NFIP to study polio in North Africa (1943)
Isabel Morgan actually developed the first inactivated polio vaccine, but only tested it on monkeys (1949)
John Enders, with T. H. Weller and F. C. Robbins, received the Nobel Prize in 1954 for their work on the cultivation of the poliomyelitis viruses (1949)
David Bodian creates the monkey model using field isolates of poliovirus and with Jonas Salk, identifies the three poliovirus serotyes (1950s)
Hilary Koprowki develops the first oral, live polio vaccine, (1950) although Sabin’s vaccine eventually gets licensed because it is thought to be less neurovirulent in monkeys and undergoes more testing
there are 58,000 cases of paralytic polio in the United States (1952)
Renato Dulbecco, with Marguerite Vogt, successfully grows and purifies polio virus (1952)
the Polio Pioneers vaccine field trial, led by Thomas Francis Jr., that proves that Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine is safe and effective begins (1954)
the WHO Western Pacific Region is declared polio free (2000)
the United States switches back to using the an inactivated polio vaccine because of concerns over VAPP (2000)
the WHO European Region is declared polio free (2002)
outbreak of vaccine derived polio among a group of unvaccinated Amish in Minnesota (2005)
last case of VAPP that was acquired outside the United States, an unvaccinated 22-year-old U.S. college student who became infected with polio vaccine virus while traveling in Costa Rica in a university-sponsored study-abroad program (2005)
last case of VAPP, a patient with a long-standing combined immunodeficiency who was probably infected in the late 1990s (2009)
Bob Sears says that it is okay to delay the polio vaccine on his alternative vaccine schedule because “we don’t have polio in the United States” (2015)
a global switch from trivalent OPV to bivalent OPV in routine immunization programs (2016)
polio remains endemic in just three countries, Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan (2018)
So it should be clear, that despite what some folks think, polio wasn’t conquered overnight. And Salk and Sabin obviously had a lot of help, although those are the names we most commonly hear connected with polio eradication.
“Until poliovirus transmission is interrupted in these countries, all countries remain at risk of importation of polio, especially vulnerable countries with weak public health and immunization services and travel or trade links to endemic countries.”
Global Polio Eradication Initiative on Endemic Countries
So far this year, there have only been 11 cases of wild polio in the world – 6 in Afghanistan and 5 in Pakistan.
“In 1952 alone, nearly 60,000 children were infected with the virus; thousands were paralyzed, and more than 3,000 died.”
Jason Beaubien on Wiping Out Polio: How The U.S. Snuffed Out A Killer
Robin Cavendish was born and raised in the pre-vaccine era though, before we had the polio vaccines that have controlled, and will hopefully soon eradicate, polio.
Who Is Robin Cavendish?
Robin Francis Cavendish was born on March 12, 1930 in Middleton, Derbyshire, England.
After an early career in the Army, he helped start a tea-brokering business in Africa and made frequent trips to Kenya.
It was in Kenya that he developed paralytic polio in December 1958, just over three years after Jonas Salk‘s polio vaccine was found to be effective in field trials (April 1955).
Although he was initially given just three months to live after his diagnosis, with the help of his wife Diana, he was able to survive for another 36 years!
And they did a lot with those years, including:
using a specially adapted van to travel around England
developing a wheelchair with a built-in respirator with their friend, Oxford professor Teddy Hall and his company Littlemore Scientific Engineering. Their first prototype of their portable respirator was released in 1962 – the Cavendish Chair.
helping scientists develop the Possum, a device that helped severely disabled people electronically control their environment, including answer the phone or turn on the TV
becoming an advocate for other polio survivors
co-founding the charity Refresh with Dr. Geoffrey Spencer, which started as a way for families who needed extra help because of the need for a respirator to go on vacation together
The story of his remarkable life is told in the new movie Breathe.
And while it is also a great reminder of what life was like before we had vaccines, we shouldn’t forget about all of the other polio survivors, some of whom now have to deal with post-polio syndrome.
Nor the fact that we are so close to ending polio. Or at least new polio infections.
What to Know About Robin Cavendish
Robin Cavendish was a respirator dependent polio survivor whose life story is told in the new movie Breathe.