World Polio Day today highlights one of history’s greatest public health achievements and continues to focus on totally eliminating the crippling and potentially fatal infectious disease.

October 24 – the birthday of Jonas Salk who helped develop the first polio vaccine in 1953 – has been commemorated as World Polio Day for more than a decade as part of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI).

Since the GPEI got underway in 1988, more than 2.5 billion children have received the oral polio vaccine and polio cases have been reduced by 99.9%. The successful immunisation campaign is estimated to have prevented about 17.4 million people from suffering permanent muscle weakness or paralysis due to polio.

The GPEI is a partnership between WHO, Rotary International, the US centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), UNICEF and more recently the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Stuart Batty, Rotary PolioPlus advocacy advisor for New Zealand, said the goal of the GPEI is global certification of polio eradication, which is the cessation of transmission of all polio viruses.

There are three types of polio: the wild-type-2 polio has been eradicated globally since 1999; there have been no cases of type-3 since 2012; and the last countries with endemic wild-type-1 poliovirus are now Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan. A number of nations – particularly those neighbouring these countries – remain vulnerable, particularly if affected by conflict and disease outbreaks, because disruption to immunisation programmes increases the risk of a re-emergence of polio.

New Zealand has had several significant polio outbreaks between 1916 and 1956 but none since immunisation got underway in 1961. Since 1962 only seven cases have been reported – a number were vaccine-associated before New Zealand shifted to the inactivated polio vaccine (IPV) in 2002.

Edith Morris of Hamilton caught polio as a six-month-old baby in 1945 and says nothing would please her more than to see the eradication of polio in her lifetime. But she is worried about New Zealand’s blasé approach to vaccinations. “Polio has largely gone from our national psyche. Most health professionals would never have seen childhood polio.”

Batty said by the time the world is certified polio-free, Rotary’s contribution will have exceeded NZ$3.3 billion, including matching funds from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

He added that the world would reap substantial financial and humanitarian dividends once polio had been eradicated, with savings estimated to exceed NZ$1.5 billion per year

Prior to the development of polio vaccines, nearly every person became infected, with the highest disease rate being in infants and young children. While 95 per cent of people had no symptoms, up to 2 per cent had a rapid onset of acute flaccid (floppy) paralysis of either a single limb or of the respiratory system. People can also develop post-polio syndrome 15-40 years after recovering from polio, with the syndrome characterised by significant muscle pain and weakness.

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