Why CDC Is Involved
The Early Years of CDC’s Fight against Polio
While the global push to eradicate polio is the latest chapter in CDC’s polio efforts, the fight against polio has been part of CDC’s mission since the 1950s. Shortly after the agency’s creation, CDC established a national polio surveillance unit (PSU) headed by CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) founder Alex Langmuir. CDC worked collaboratively with Dr. Jonas Salk, of the University of Pittsburgh, who developed the inactivated polio vaccine (IPV) in the early 1950s, and Dr. Albert Sabin, who developed the oral polio vaccine (OPV) in the early 1960s. CDC’s PSU staff and EIS officers worked to administer both the Salk and Sabin polio vaccines in the field, and also gather and analyze surveillance data.
Failure is not an option. There is no escalation beyond the declaration of an emergency. It is now or never.
— Dr. Margaret Chan, WHO Director- General.
Sustaining Eradication of Polio in the U.S.
These landmark vaccination and surveillance efforts along with subsequent national mass Salk and Sabin vaccination programs—in which CDC epidemiologists continued to administer vaccine and conduct disease surveillance—led to the eradication of polio in the U.S. by 1979. We are now on the verge of eradicating the disease worldwide. Meanwhile, continued protection from polio in the U.S. depends on maintaining the impressive and historically high rate of polio vaccination. People at greatest risk include those who never had polio vaccine, or received all recommended doses, as well as those traveling to areas with polio cases. As long as polio remains in the world, vaccination will be necessary for full protection.
"Scenarios for polio being introduced into the United States are easy to imagine, and the disease could get a foothold if we don’t maintain high vaccination rates," explains CDC’s Dr. Greg Wallace, Team Lead, Measles, Mumps, Rubella, and Polio, Epidemiology Branch, Division of Viral Diseases, National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. "For example, an unvaccinated U.S. resident could travel abroad and become infected before returning home. Or, a visitor to the United States could travel here while infected. The point is, one person infected with polio is all it takes to start the spread of polio to others if they are not protected by vaccination." For more about the importance of continued polio vaccination in the U.S., see Polio: Unprotected Story.
Polio control remains an important priority for CDC today, as it was in the 1950s. Today, global eradication is within reach, as efforts are focused on those few remaining areas where polio remains endemic and where polio transmission has been re-established.