A new polio vaccine is now available on a nearly global scale. This vaccine, which is being rolled out in 155 countries and territories worldwide, has been labeled by the World Health Organization (W.H.O.)’s Polio Eradication initiative as the “largest and fastest globally coordinated roll out of a vaccine into routine programs in history.”
This fading disease, which has been called “poliomyelitis” or “infantile paralysis” in the past, has seen its numbers drastically cut back in recent years with new medical advances. According to data that has been published by N.P.R., there were 74 cases of polio reported in the wild. These infections were limited to Pakistan and Afghanistan. While this would outwardly appear to still be a major problem, it should be noted that this number is down tremendously from 350,000 documented cases of polio-caused paralysis in children alone in 125 countries in 1988.
So far for 2016, just 10 infections have been reported, still contained to only Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Polio is primarily an issue for developing countries due to the nature with which it is usually transmitted. Countries with poorer sanitation are more susceptible, as polio is primarily spread when infected fecal matter is exposed to the mouth.
Polio – which carries with it initial symptoms such as fever, fatigue, headaches, vomiting, neck stiffness, and pain in the extremities – can be much more dangerous when left untreated. In some extreme cases, the disease has led to permanent muscle weakness and paralysis. Sadly, those who die from polio tend to pass away because they can no longer control the muscles that are used to regulate their ability to breathe.
“We’re closer than ever to ending polio worldwide,” said the W.H.O.’s Polio Eradication initiative’s director Michael Zaffran of the newly developed vaccine. “[This development] is why we are able to move forward with the largest and fastest globally synchronized switch ever.”
This switch, Zaffran noted, refers to the changeover to the new vaccine and the ultimate elimination of its predecessor.
Recent scientific developments have been able to isolate – and remove from the vaccine – a specific strain of polio that has not been seen in the wild since 1999, thus (a) making the newer vaccine more targeted toward other strains, and (b) reducing the small risk of a future outbreak from the seemingly eliminated strain.
As the World Health Organization has noted, the most-recent version of the polio vaccine – “trivalent” oral polio vaccine, or “tOPV” – protected against types 1, 2, and 3 of the virus. The new vaccine – “bivalent” oral polio vaccine, or “bOPV” – targets only those two strains that are still found in the wild.
The group plans to phase out the previous vaccine, effective immediately and have it no longer be in use worldwide by May 1.
“This [polio vaccine phase out] has been carefully planned because of the huge amount of resources,” continued the W.H.O.’s Zaffran. “Countries have been using up the old vaccine to minimize leftover quantities.”
The elimination of this stockpile of old vaccines, however, has become the World Health Organization’s primary concern.
According to the Polio Eradication Initiative, the W.H.O. will handle the changeover to the new vaccine, in particular dispatching “thousands” to monitor the disposal of the previous version of the polio treatment. The W.H.O. noted that there exists a stockpile of the now outdated tOPV polio vaccine in those 155 countries that will need to be safely destroyed over time.
The new bOPV polio vaccine, meanwhile, is being heralded as potentially the treatment that could finally paralyze polio itself. The new vaccine will be administered as a mouth drop, thus helping to reduce a healthcare workers’ exposure to any number of potentially dangerous diseases.
“[The new polio vaccine] is testimony to how much progress is being made toward achieving a lasting polio-free world,” continued Zaffran, “[in addition] to the commitment of all countries to make this dream a reality.”
[Image by George Konig/Keystone Features/Getty Images]