By Kate Jackman-Atkinson, Editor, myWestman.ca
NEEPAWA, Man. — My dad was born in 1931 and as a child, he never learned to swim, his mother wouldn’t let him. She wasn’t afraid he’d drown, she was afraid he’d contract polio. The fearful disease could be spread by infected water and left tens of thousands of Canadians with some degree of paralysis.
The virus permanently damages the nerve cells that control muscles and while it can infect people of any age, it poses the largest risk to children under five years of age. Canada had its first case of polio in 1910 and in the following 60 or so years, public health departments tried unsuccessfully to contain the outbreaks that sprung up each year, usually in summer or fall.
In Canada, the virus peaked in 1952, when there were nearly 9,000 cases that resulted in 500 deaths. It was the most serious national epidemic since the influenza pandemic in 1918. The Canadian Public Health Association estimates that between 1949 and 1954, 11,000 Canadians were paralyzed by the disease. The situation started to turn around in 1955, when the Salk vaccine was introduced. Canada had its last major polio epidemic in 1959, when nearly 2,000 patients were left with some degree of paralysis. In 1962, the Sabin oral vaccine was introduced to Canada and widespread vaccination brought polio under control in the early 1970s.
Canada was certified “polio free” in 1994, which is why it’s a disease few of us ever think about. But that’s not the case elsewhere in the world. While there are effective vaccines, even today, there is no cure.
The disease has proven very difficult to eradicate and remains endemic, meaning there is a certain baseline level of cases, in Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan. Additionally, there are 14 countries where outbreaks happen and 13 that are considered at risk. Last month, the world saw just how fragile polio-free status is when a case was found in the Philippines– the first in 19 years. A second case was discovered in late September and the country began a mass vaccination campaign.
For 30 years, the international service club, Rotary International, has been working to eradicate polio and is one of the five partners– along with the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centres for Disease Control, Unicef and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation– in the Polio Global Eradication Initiative. This is an initiative in which all local Rotary clubs participate, which means that Manitoba communities, through the support of their local Rotary clubs, have helped immunize more than 2.5 billion children, in 122 countries, against polio. This global, multi-partner effort has reduced worldwide polio cases by 99.9 percent.
Despite this dramatic decrease, the goal is to completely eradicate the disease. Polio is highly contagious and is spread through stool or droplets from a sneeze or cough. Like many viruses, a person can be infected and only have mild, flu-like symptoms. Someone with the disease is infectious from seven to 10 days before and after the onset of symptoms. The virus persists in the throat for about one week and is excreted for three to six weeks after the patient becomes ill. Not only that, the virus can survive for up to two months outside the body. All factors that contribute to its persistence.
October 24 is World Polio Day and a good opportunity to remember how close we could be to seeing the re-emergence of this disease. Our world is so interconnected, it’s estimated that if the disease isn’t eradicated in the next decade, there could be as many as 200,000 new cases each year. It only costs $3 to fully vaccinate a child — a small price to pay.