I love the summer, but August in Houston is a phenomenon in and of itself. It seems that every year our city hits a new record high temperature and without our neighborhood pool I’m not sure my kids and I would participate in any outdoor activities in the final month of summer. Life without that cool water to splash around in is almost unimaginable, but just one generation ago it was a reality. In the 1950’s community pools and parks were closed, parents ordered their children not to drink from public water fountains, and schools even cancelled graduations in an attempt to stop the spread of polio; a disease that affected over 33,000 people in 1950 alone. Thankfully, the introduction of Salk’s inactivated poliovirus vaccine (IPV), developed by Jonas Salk, in 1955 rapidly decreased this number to under 2,500 cases in 1957 and by 1965 only 61 cases of polio were reported in the United States, helping to end an era of fear.
Polio, a vaccine-preventable disease most often spread through person-to-person contact, used to be very common in the U.S. and caused severe illness in thousands of people each year. While most people infected with this preventable disease have no symptoms, for the less than 1% who develop paralysis, it may result in permanent disability and even death. While our generation has little fear, or even knowledge of the life altering consequences of this disease, it is still a real threat. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), as of early 2012, the world is still not on track to eradicate this disabling and deadly disease. While the incidence of polio has seen a drop of more than 99% since 1998, 111 cases have been reported this year in four countries, three of those still considered to be endemic to the disease. According to CDC Director Thomas R. Frieden, MD, MPH, it is imperative that we make a final push toward eradication of polio a top priority, explaining that “without eradication, a resurgence of polio could paralyze more than 200,000 children worldwide each year within a decade.”
It’s safe to say that most of us have never seen a case of polio in our lifetime; something we should all be thankful for. However, the protection that the polio vaccine has provided us for over half a century gives many a false sense of security and the dangerous impression that the disease is no longer a threat, which is simply untrue. Receiving the recommended childhood vaccinations as well as those recommended for unvaccinated adults is the only way to truly protect yourself and others from this disease so many of us cannot even imagine. Let’s all do our part to make sure that polio is part of the past, not the future.