In 2017, there were only 22 recorded cases of polio worldwide. These were mainly in remote pockets of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The goal now is to assist these two countries in stopping the transmission of endemic wild poliovirus and quelling its resurgence among vulnerable populations. Hats off to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), the political will of these nations, and the thousands of volunteers, committed health professionals and non-governmental organizations to keep the focus on mass immunization services and robust disease surveillance. They’ve helped write what is hopefully the final chapter for this disease.
Despite cause for optimism, though, there still are challenges to global polio eradication. In addition to the logistical coordination of vaccine storage, transportation and administration, there are geographical, economical, religious, and political barriers. But an even bigger challenge is the risk of complacency.
In this day of global travel, we must constantly remind ourselves that polio is only a flight away. It is imperative that we, as pediatricians, encourage parents to continue to immunize their children against polio and continue to advocate our government to support the GPEI until the world is polio-free.
"We treated hundreds of children with polio and remember the face of each child left paralyzed by the disease, anxiously looking to us for answers. Their sparkling eyes were oblivious to the hardships that lay ahead.”
Of course, polio isn’t the only infectious disease we can’t let down our guard against. Outbreaks of Hepatitis A in various parts of the country, for example, recently hit close to home here in Kentucky. Fortunately, we have been aggressively immunizing children in our practice against Hepatitis A for more than a decade.
Some communities are seeing first-hand what can happen when immunization efforts fade. Recent U.S. outbreaks of measles—believed to be eliminated from the United States in 2000—provide a cautionary reminder. In each case, the measles virus is thought to have been transmitted by people who had travelled internationally within communities where complacency and myths about vaccine complications led to immunization rates that were no longer high enough to offer enough protection. And in Europe, at least 35 children died of measles during a resurgence also fueled by low vaccination rates.
Vaccines are a true triumph of science. But unless we work together to protect our communities from infectious disease, they are powerless. By counseling families about the ongoing importance of immunization, we can continue the quest to protect all children from dangerous and preventable illness.
* The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and not necessarily those of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Seema Sachdeva, MD, FAAP, a recipient of 2018 CDC Childhood Immunization Champion Award, is Founding Vice-Chair of the Division of Pediatrics at Kentucky College of Osteopathic Medicine (KYCOM) at University of Pikeville. She also received a Child Abuse Prevention Advocate of the Year award from Norton Children's Hospital.
Rakesh Sachdeva, M.D., F.A.A.P, Founding Chair of the Division of Pediatrics at KYCOM, has served as a District Governor for Rotary International, a partner in global polio eradication efforts. Both practice with the Physicians for Children and Adolescents in Pikeville, Kentucky.