Watching a friend’s 11-month old baby crawling swiftly across the floor recently left me amused, as it reminded me of an army soldier crawling (I’ve since learned that this is in fact a legitimate crawling technique, and is known as ‚the army crawl‘). I must have put a similar crawling technique to use as a baby – but instead of my parents looking on with wonder, they were worried for a few days that I may have been infected with the poliovirus. Poliovirus is a highly infectious virus which begins as a typical virus infection but invades the nervous system leading in some cases to paralysis and even death. The infection mainly occurs in young children under the age of 5.
This is hard to imagine for us in the modern world. But polio (poliomyelitis) epidemics occurred up until the first half of the 20th century in America and remained endemic in many low-income countries much later on into the 20th century. There is no treatment for the infection, but the production of a vaccine in the mid-50s and its slow distribution throughout the world, together with better sanitation, has led to an eradication of the disease in 80% of the world. India was declared free of polio just in March this year. Polio is still endemic in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria. The World Health Organisation targets the complete eradication of polio in 2018.
This week, 2 bits of worrying news have been reported. Firstly, that cases of polio have been reported in 10 developing countries around the world this year. Secondly, that there is a shortage of the quadruple virus (diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, polio) in some countries in Europe, meaning that the booster vaccine has not been available for some school-aged children and adults. The vaccination of babies has not been affected.
In my medical life, I see a case of so-called post-polio syndrome – the disability seen in the aftermath of the infection in sufferers of polio – every so often. A gentle reminder of how things used to be. While polio is not a threat to those living in most parts of the world now, having an awareness of the severity of this terrible childhood disease should hopefully remind us to appreciate the vital role of vaccinations in our modern life.