A Virus Considered Eradicated in 2019 Just Made a Comeback

Andrei Tapalaga

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Trying to contain the polio epidemic in New York (1916)Polio Eradication

Our world has seen pandemics and epidemics since our world started to become more and more populated, however, every major medical catastrophe we somehow managed to get through. The Black Death came and went, so did the Spanish Flu, but there is a virus that is very notorious in our history for it being present for many years. Just as we thought that we managed to eradicate it from the face of this planet, it has come back yet again during this current pandemic, as if things weren’t bad enough.

The history of Poliomyelitis

I presume that most of you may have heard of this virus, more commonly known by its short name polio. The origin of the virus itself is still unknown to this day. Some Egyptian stele portrays show evidence that polio may have existed even before 1500 B.C., meaning that it is the oldest virus that this world has faced.

In 1789, Dr. Muchael Underwood was the first to sort of discovering polio and get an understanding of how the virus works and the sort of symptoms people have. The problem with polio is that in 72% of cases there are no symptoms, making the virus one of the hardest to control and monitor. Dr. Underwood saw that the main effect of the virus is disabling the patient's legs in most common cases, making them crippled for life.

It was only found out in 1840 by Dr. Jacob von Heine that the disease is contagious and it can be taken straight away from having contact with another person. The world was not aware and with the slow communication technology during the 19th century, it was even more difficult to make people aware of this virus. Medics around the world were watching as thousands of people became crippled overnight without any sort of explanation for symptoms.

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Kids affected by Polio circa the 1900sPolio Eradication

The world didn’t quite understand the virus or how complex it was until 1931 when Macfarlane Burnet and Dame Jean MacNamara categorized the 3 different clinical types of polio:

Around the same period of time, it was noticed by medics worldwide that is most noticeable in children under the age of 5 which makes sense as they were only starting to build an immune system. This made epidemics worldwide even more difficult to control.

The world saw that it was heading in a bad direction, therefore the World Health Organisation worked together to create a vaccine that would stop the spread of polio. In the early 1950s, Jonas Salk created the first vaccine named IPV (Inactivated Poliovirus Vaccine) also known as the Salk vaccine. The vaccine was good, but not as effective as the world needed it to be.

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Vials of a polio vaccine made by Cutter Laboratories in 1955Associated Press

That is why in the 1960s a second vaccine was invented by microbiologist Albert Sabin named OPV (Oral Poliovirus Vaccine) or Sabin Vaccine. Most vaccines contain the virus, but in an inactive state where it is harmless, Sabin created a vaccine that contained a live virus that had been weakened enough to ensure that the immune system within children can combat it.

The first worldwide immunization program was started in 1985 by Rotary International who mainly aimed at children. The WHO went on to create the Global Polio Eradication Initiative in 1988 that would further pursue the worldwide immunization process with the hope of eradicating polio.

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Certificate from WHO presenting that Type 3 polio (the last type present in the world at the time) had been eradicated globallyPolio Eradication

Before the start of this month, we were able to say that polio is eradicated for good, with the last case being recorded in September of 2019. In October 2019, polio was officially declared globally eradicated.

Polio making a Comeback

On the 7th of October 2021, a polio case was identified in a toddler from Ukraine. The toddler is only 17 months old and sadly he is now suffering from type 2 polio with his legs mostly paralyzed. She also had contact with six siblings that currently do not show any symptoms. It seems that their parents refused the child to receive his polio vaccine due to religious beliefs…

We have to remember that in most cases, polio cannot be identified from symptoms and there is no law that forces parents to vaccinate their children but hasn’t the world learned anything. Even so, it is quite strange to see the case in Europe, as polio had been eradicated in this continent since 2002. The culture within Ukraine and Eastern Europe in general forces a strong religious lifestyle onto people who pray to God for good health rather than visiting a medic.

What should worry the world is that if these two parents chose to not vaccine their child against polio, so did many more and not just in Ukraine or Europe, but surely in other parts of the world too. This is how slowly new epidemics can be built. These sort of people seem to not understand just how hard the world has worked to eradicate this virus, it may just be the same case with this present pandemic where it could take another decade or even century to eradicate it.

One very important point to mention is that there is no cure for polio and frankly the WHO has not had this as a primary focus because the virus was eradicated. Right now WHO is working with health authorities in Ukraine to determine if there is a risk of epidemic. The current pandemic makes this very difficult and having another virus to combat is exactly what we don’t need right now.

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