The War With Polio

We no longer need to think about smallpox, and by the time those who are children now grow up they will no longer need to think about polio. For the moment, however, it is tenacious. Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria are three countries where the war is being waged. Recently Syria had to be added. Health workers administering the vaccine have been attacked, some killed. There is resistance from several sources. In some regions, the Taliban is fighting and threatening against the necessary vaccinations to eradicate the disease and protect vulnerable children. Beyond social, religious and political issues, there are funding ones. Vaccinating millions of children has become quite costly. Health workers have to be trained and at least nominally protected. The war against polio began in 1988 when there were 350,000 cases reported. Last year there was 223. We may have come a long way in a relatively short time, but the last battles are challenging besides being expensive. It is estimated that $5bn is needed to finish the job, and some ask, why take resources away from TB, from cholera, from HIV, from illnesses very much in need of attention? Because, says the WHO once polio is eradicated, then resources that are currently spent on treating and fighting it, can be allocated to other diseases. While in the short run it seems unfair, in the context of time, it’s an investment that will permit greater attention to those other illnesses. When it’s all done, the result will not only be a polio free world, it will also have made inroads into health care delivery systems and enlisted workers able to apply their training to fight other diseases. Smallpox too had difficult battles to wage before it could be declared gone. And one day we won’t remember the war against polio, only that it was won.