October Devoted to Polio Plus

Posted By Rotary

By Patricia Boston, Ph.D
Clinical Professor, Faculty of Medicine, University of British Columbia


In honour of World Polio Day on October 24th, 2015, members, families and friends of The Rotary Club of Bowen Island will be devoting the month of October towards raising awareness and funding for Polio Plus, Rotary International’s 27 year mission to eradicate polio a crippling disease of childhood which causes paralysis and life long chronic pain.

For many of us polio is a disease belonging to the past. Most of us may think that polio is an illness that happened to our parents or grandparents and something we need no longer worry about since we seldom hear about it in the news. These days’ robust vaccination programs throughout the West have all but eradicated this debilitating disease. However, in the early 20th century and as recently as the 1950s or 1960s polio or infantile paralysis (as it was then known) was a disease feared throughout the world paralyzing hundreds of thousands of children every year.

Many people — like myself — can remember school and neighborhood friends who suddenly contracted the disease and were either paralyzed in one or both limbs or had to be ‘sent away’ to an isolation hospital because of the high risk of infection.

As a young trainee health provider, I was first introduced to polio in Britain in the mid 1960s. Unlike the usual row of patient beds that were characteristic of British hospital wards at the time, polio wards were notably different. These wards consisted of six to eight beds which were rectangular iron boxes or long cylinders which stood silently, four feet apart- each of which encapsulated the patient showing only their head and neck. I soon learned that these ‘boxes’ were in fact tank respirators or iron lungs. Access through portholes along the sides of each ‘lung’ allowed physicians and nurses to physically care for the patients. These tank respirators were the only means by which patients paralyzed by polio could be kept alive.

What does polio look like? How does it manifest? Polio is an intestinal viral disease that spreads through fecal material in areas where there is contaminated water or food. It occurs where unsanitary conditions exist which is how it spreads in some of the poorest countries in the world. For the person infected, polio begins insidiously and at first seems uneventful with flu-like symptoms of a fever, sore throat, headache, muscle tenderness and fatigue.

There are two different types of polio: paralytic polio and non paralytic polio. Both types exhibit similar symptoms but paralytic polio progresses rapidly to a loss of muscle reflexes, severe muscle pain and loose or floppy limbs often worsening on one side of the body. Polio victims primarily include children, young pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems.

At present, there is no known cure for polio. Treatment is focused on managing symptoms and preventing complications. The best way of combating polio is through prevention.

Western industrialized countries have greatly benefitted from the availability of polio vaccines in the last few decades. When the Salk vaccine was introduced in 1955 and the Sabine vaccine in 1961, polio was effectively controlled and for the most part eliminated in the western world. In 1988 when the Global Polio Eradication Initiative began polio paralyzed more than 1000 children every day. However, since 1988 when the World Health Assembly resolved to eradicate the disease, the number of endemic countries has decreased from over 125 in 1988 to only three in 2015: Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan.

Most recently the continent of Africa has passed an important milestone in that it is now one year since the last reported case of polio. But in order for a country to be considered polio free, three years must pass without any reported cases.

So, although fund raising efforts have been dedicated to polio eradication for so many years we are still not there. Rotary International and a host of health organizations continue to raise awareness and support polio eradication campaigns because as long as polio still exists, the world will not be polio free.

Polio Plus is spearheaded by the World Health Organization, Rotary International and the United Nations Children’s Fund. Rotary International brings together a global net work of volunteer leaders with the goal of eradicating polio through immunization.

Since 1988, over 2.5 billion children have been immunized against polio due to the global cooperation of over 200 countries and 20 million volunteers. Millions of volunteers have been trained to support immunization programs and through polio eradication these initiatives have been strengthened. The result of these efforts means that over 10 million children who otherwise might have been paralyzed can walk and lead productive lives.

Throughout the month of October and especially on October 24th, The Rotary Club of Bowen Island will be wearing purple ribbons in support of world polio eradication. Feel free to ask any of us for more information about this debilitating disease and what is being done to globally eradicate it.

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