The uproar over polio: Is it deserved?

Technically, we can eradicate polio, but a number of reported outbreaks around the world have called the possibility into question.

From a CNN article, which pretty much says anything I could say about the current situation:

The spread of polio constitutes an international public health emergency, the World Health Organization declared Monday.

“If unchecked, this situation could result in failure to eradicate globally one of the world’s most serious vaccine preventable diseases,” the WHO said in a statement.

At the end of 2013, 60% of polio cases resulted from the international spread of the virus, and “there was increasing evidence that adult travelers contributed to the spread,” according to the statement.

Warfare in Syria is compromising vaccination efforts and human movement, presumably by refugees, are spreading the disease to countries like Iraq and Cameroon. It’s obvious that the failure to eradicate polio is a political problem.

I’ve been asked about polio several times over the past four weeks. People appear to be somewhat panicked about the situation.

Every time, I have responded in the same manner. While the eradication of polio would provide a great publicity boost for public health groups, polio does not present a major threat to global human health. While a small percentage of children infected with polio will go on to develop debilitating paralysis, the disease rarely kills its host. Polio is hardly one of “the world’s most serious vaccine preventable diseases.” I can think of many others which are far more serious.

To complicate matters, the social and medical infrastructure to support people afflicted by the disease is quite well developed in Sub-Saharan African countries. It is common to see polio paralytics in African cities living relatively comfortable lives, despite the severity of their conditions.

I do not share the same level of panic surrounding the failure to eradicate polio. Malaria and diarrheal diseases kill far more children, cause far more human suffering and wreak far more damage to social and economic development in developing countries than polio ever did or ever will. To me, those two are “international health emergencies.”

Vaccines against polio exist and are quite effective at controlling disease worldwide at a relatively low price. While the argument can be made that the eradication of polio would allow that money to be used for other purposes within cash strapped health budgets, the futile push to eradicate polio is likely sapping health money from more immediate health concerns.

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About Pete Larson

Researcher at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. Lecturer in the University of Michigan School of Public Health and at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I do epidemiology, public health, GIS, health disparities and environmental justice. I also do music and weird stuff.

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