Polio is rarely mentioned anymore.
This virus has been a scourge on the human race for millennium, but it is most known in the U.S. for the fear it evoked among parents in the 1950’s.
It was clearly one of the most feared diseases of the 20th century and for good reasons.
Like COVID-19, polio was a silent spreader. Up to 70% of people who were infected did not become sick or even show symptoms, yet they were able to infect others.
Of those infected, 1 in 200 suffered from irreversible paralysis and 5-10% who were paralyzed ultimately died.
The U.S. struggled heavily with polio from 1916 to 1955. There were 57,628 cases which resulted in 3,145 deaths in 1952 alone.
Intensive care units began to appear during this era to support the vast number of people needing support from iron lungs – tank ventilators used to assist polio patients with breathing.
Parents were afraid to send their children to school, and the polio epidemic left scars on our societal consciousness.
While few western countries think about polio very much, there is a lot we can learn from the history of the eradication of polio and the current COVID-19 pandemic.
In 1789, the British physician Michael Underwood recognized poliomyelitis as a specific disease process. In 1919, the Austrian biologist Karl Landsteiner identified the poliovirus.
These discoveries paved the way for the development of the first polio vaccines through the work of Polish virologist Hilary Koprowsk, American virologist Jonas Salk and Polish-Jewish researcher Albert Sabin.
Now, nearly all children throughout the world are vaccinated for polio to the point that recorded cases have dropped from 350,000 in 1988 to 33 in 2018.
The eradication of polio, like the elimination of smallpox, is one of medical science’s greatest successes. From the beginning of the battle, it was an international effort.
After a year of struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic, it would be wise for us to step back and reflect upon what we learned from the 20th century’s epic battle against polio.
First, and often forgotten, the battle against polio is not over.
We rarely discuss it, but Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan still see cases of the disease.
If the population can be vaccinated, then the virus will eventually die out because it cannot find new hosts.
Two of the three historic strains of the polio have been eradicated. Type 2 was declared eradicated in 1999 and type 3 has not been found since 2012. The hope is that polio will be fully eradicated by 2023.
Like the development of the first polio vaccines, this effort has truly been international.
The success of the initiative is credited to millions of volunteers who travel the world vaccinating children, coupled with the development of an easy-to-use oral polio vaccine that cost around 14 cents and the willingness of governments to put politics aside to save lives.
All of this is based on international partnerships and a willingness to work together as a global community.
It has taken over a century to eradicate a disease that has been with the human race since the Egyptians, and it took a worldwide partnership that transcended borders.
With that in mind, how do we think that this generation will eradicate the 15-month-old COVID-19 virus without the same kind of international coordination and collaboration?
Sadly, unlike polio, our battle against COVID-19 has not seen high levels of cooperation.
On Feb. 11, President Joseph Biden announced that by July the U.S. will have acquired over 600 million vaccines, enough for every American. This projected timeline was later updated to the end of May.
While this is great for America, NPR reported on Feb. 15 that 130 countries haven’t started vaccinating yet.
This global crisis will not be solved if only rich western countries are protected.
In addition, the BBC reported that South Korea’s National Intelligence Agency is accusing North Korea of hacking Pfizer for information related to the COVID-19 vaccine. If we were readily sharing data and information, then hackers would have nothing to steal.
Even in the early days of the pandemic, there was very little cooperation between China and western countries. It did not solve the crisis to make China the scapegoat of the pandemic, and it did not encourage China to partner with western scientists.
The most outrageous act of non-cooperation was former President Donald Trump’s withdrawing from WHO in the middle of a pandemic.
No single nation can solve this pandemic on its own.
We need to take a lesson from the last century and make this a global effort. Just like polio eradication, we need a wide-angle global focus in order to defeat COVID-19.
Second, we need to remember that if a deadly virus exists anywhere in the world, then it is a threat everywhere.
Just like polio, COVID-19 needs a host. Unless there is a concerted effort to suppress coronavirus outbreaks throughout the world, there is a chance that the virus will circle the globe again.
We saw this with the influenza pandemic of 1918, which swept the world in three different waves.
Because we live in a global society that benefits from mass transit, viruses can move from a village in southeast Asia to New York City in a couple of days.
Such rapid movement can take place before public health workers even notice symptoms of the original infection and before anyone notices a problem or even thinks about discussing lockdowns.
Unlike polio, which rarely mutates, corona-style viruses have a tendency to mutate more quickly. We have already seen new strains of COVID-19 that are more easily transmitted.
In the face of these challenges, it is counterproductive to focus only on one’s own country because modern viruses do not stop at border crossings to get their passport stamped.
Therefore, we need a more robust international effort designed to control the spread of COVID-19, not a shortsighted nationalistic approach.
Senior Staff Chaplain and Clinical Ethicist at the Baptist Health Medical Center in Little Rock, Arkansas.