Vaccines work: The fight against polio

In our final article of this World Immunisation Week series, we drill down into the challenges faced by medics in the fight against polio.

A crippling infectious disease, polio invades the nervous system and can cause total paralysis in hours. Highly dangerous and sometimes fatal, the disease largely affects children under the age of five.

As terrifying as this sounds, polio no longer poses substantial threat to parts of the world that have access to the vaccine, developed in the US following an epidemic year which saw 58,000 reported new cases and more than 3,000 deaths. While there’s still no cure, the wide scale availability of an oral vaccine in 1962, developed by Polish-American researcher Albert Sabin, essentially wiped out the disease in the US and many parts of the developed world.

Where vaccinations were not integrated in state health programmes, the risk of polio remained high, with an estimated 350,000 people paralysed annually worldwide by the disease in the 1980s.

In 1988, things began to change. The 41st World Health Assembly embraced a resolution to eradicate polio, launching the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.

Coming together in a joint effort, UNICEF, state governments, private foundations, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and many other organisations worked to instate immunisation programmes that gave children the oral polio vaccine before their first birthday.

The results of the programme have been remarkable. According to the WHO, cases of polio have dropped 99 per cent since 1988, with just 22 reported cases in 2017.

Today, more than 16 million people are able to walk who might have otherwise been paralysed by polio, and some 1.5 million deaths have been prevented. Today, there are only three countries where polio still exists – Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria.

In recent years, IAG Cargo has responded to outbreaks in Afghanistan and Syria using our temperature controlled aircraft holds to transport oral polio vaccines to those who have not been immunised. Similarly to the fight against smallpox, this immunisation effort has worked wonders – it just goes to show the incredible progress that can be achieved when we come together for a cause.