Polio, the crippling disease that was every American parent’s nightmare 60 years ago, is now hoped to be just the second disease to be wiped off the planet since smallpox was eradicated in 1979.
Polio has left thousands of children and adults paralyzed, but it has long been eliminated in the United States, as vaccines developed in the 1950s along with a $9 billion worldwide vaccination campaign largely reduced widespread global outbreaks.
And today, 99 percent of the world is polio-free.
But the virus still lingers in parts of the world that are only a plane ride away. Polio spreads silently and quickly through water, and still lurks across parts of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria.
And this year, an ongoing outbreak in the Congo has left hundreds dead and more paralyzed.
It’s outbreaks like that that have ignited a renewed push to finally banish wild polio from this earth.
Atul has been living with polio for over 23 years and underwent reconstructive surgery at St. Stephens Hospital in New Delhi, India. To fix his polio deformities, bone marrow was injected into the bone to strengthen one of his legs, which is three inches shorter than the other. His hope, he tells ABC News, is that the surgery will help him to get a job.
Dr. Donald Henderson, the American physician and epidemiologist who pioneered the effort in the 1960s and 1970s to eradicate smallpox, once said that he does not think that polio will ever be eliminated worldwide. But, today he has changed his mind.
“I think eradication of the wild polio virus is possible,” Henderson said in a recent interview.
And here’s how: On regularly scheduled National Immunization days in India, more than 2.5 million health workers across India go door-to-door, vaccinating 172 million children, several times a year. The hope is that the vaccine sticks and the virus has no chance of survival.
And with millions of babies born each month, there is no time to rest.
ABC News Chief Health and Medical Editor Dr. Richard Besser, a 13-year veteran of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recently traveled to India and received word of a child with a sudden onset of paralysis. With a policy of investigating every reported case, representatives of the World Health Organization set out to find out why 2-year-old Sameer was unable to move his legs.
If Sameer, who used to walk but is now unable to even stand, has polio, that means that 2 million people in and around New Delhi would need to be vaccinated in a mop-up campaign.
In efforts to prevent disease, children are vaccinated at every opportunity, be it with door-to-door campaigns or in public places. Across cities in India they even vaccinate children through train windows for the few minutes that a train is in the station.
But efforts to vaccinate large populations take massive organization and money. And with the political strife in neighboring Pakistan, it is difficult to reach the children there who need it most, giving the virus an opportunity to flourish.
Still, Dr. Hamid Jafari, who runs the polio eradication program for Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization in India, along with thousands of health workers across the globe, look towards success as they work tirelessly to eradicate the virus.
“It doesn’t take much for the virus to get to another continent,” Jafari said. “And if the virus finds a group of unimmunized children, it will have a home and it will kill and paralyze children.”