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CDC’s Race to Eradicate Polio

Photo: Young boy receiving polio vaccinationThe fight against polio has been part of CDC’s mission since the 1950s, and the global push to eradicate polio is just the latest chapter in CDC’s polio efforts.

The entire CDC community is an active participant in the intensified strategy to eradicate polio worldwide. CDC's Global Immunization Division leads the agency’s partnership engagement through the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) and the Emergency Operations Center serves as the hub for the agency's intensified emergency polio response. CDC and GPEI are committed to eradicating polio.

Isn't Polio Gone?

Polio, or poliomyelitis, is an infectious viral disease that can strike at any age and affects a person's nervous system. In the late 1940s to the early 1950s, in the U. S. alone, polio crippled around 35,000 people each year—making it one of the most feared diseases of the 20th century. Yet, thanks to a massive vaccination effort, by 1979 the country became polio free. The eradication of polio from the western hemisphere of the world is one of the most significant public health achievements of all time. At this time, we have never been closer to eradicating polio from the world and providing a legacy for the children of today and tomorrow to be free from this lifelong illness.

The Early Years of CDC's Fight against Polio

The fight against polio has been part of CDC's mission since the 1950s, and the global push to eradicate polio is just the latest chapter in CDC's polio efforts. Shortly after CDC was created, it established a national polio surveillance unit (PSU) headed by CDC's Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) founder Alex Langmuir. CDC worked collaboratively with the two giants in polio eradication, 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 and also gather and analyze surveillance data.

CDC's Chief EIS Officer at the time, Ira L. Myers, M.D., M.P.H., remembers the collaboration of CDC's PSU and EIS with Salk and Sabin as something monumental, "As I think back on it, to sit in a conference room where Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin were sitting across from each other trying to decide whose vaccine was going to be first, is something that stays with your memory forever."

Keeping the U.S. Polio-Free

Landmark vaccination and surveillance efforts along with subsequent national Salk and Sabin vaccination programs eradicated polio in the U.S. by 1979. Now, we are on the verge of worldwide eradication of this dreaded disease. In the U.S. meanwhile, continued protection from polio depends on continuing the impressive and historically high rate of polio vaccination. People at greatest risk include those who never had polio vaccine, or didn't receive all the recommended doses, as well as those traveling to areas with polio cases. Vaccination will be necessary for full protection as long as polio remains in the world.

"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 unaware that they are infected. The point is that one person unknowingly infected with polio is all it takes to start the spread of polio to others if they are not protected by vaccination."

Polio control remains an important priority for CDC today, as it was in the 1950s. Today, with global eradication within reach, efforts are focused on those few remaining areas where polio remains widespread and where polio transmission has been re-established.

The Global Push toward Worldwide Eradication

Launched in 1988, GPEI has been the largest public health initiative in history. At that time, more than 125 countries had widespread polio, with an estimated 350,000 children paralyzed by the disease annually—nearly 1,000 each day. The World Health Organization (WHO), Rotary International, CDC, UNICEF, and more recently the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, are all major partners in the initiative, with CDC serving as a lead technical partner.

Polio rates have dropped more than 99 percent since the launch of global polio eradication efforts in 1988, and India was declared one year polio-free in February 2012. Nevertheless, poliovirus transmission is still ongoing in three countries—Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan, and travelers have carried the infection back to 39 previously polio-free countries over the last several years. It is therefore critical that we give this final push toward eradication our best effort. As Dr. Frieden has stated, "If we fail to get over the finish line, we will need to continue expensive control measures for the indefinite future…More importantly, without eradication, every year, polio could disable or kill more than 100,000 children."

CDC's Role in the Race to the Finish

In the final push toward global polio eradication, CDC will continue its close teamwork with our partners at WHO, UNICEF, Rotary, and the Gates Foundation to ensure a coordinated global and country-level response.

CDC's polio eradication activities include:

  • Providing technical assistance for outbreak response, surveillance reviews, and vaccination campaign planning and monitoring.
  • Advancing efforts to strengthen immunization infrastructure in key areas related to polio eradication.
  • Supporting efforts to strengthen management capacity.
  • Actively seeking out, evaluating, and scaling up effective innovations to identify and vaccinate children.
  • Reinforcing CDC country offices resources, and increasing in-country planning and coordination.
  • Facilitating partner engagement and enhanced support for countries most threatened by pervasive or recurrent polio outbreaks.

CDC's partnership in this important eradication effort is part of working 24/7 to keep America safe and secure from health threats, foreign or domestic. CDC is the U.S. health protection agency saving lives, protecting people, and saving money through prevention. This effort continues the fight begun in CDC's early years to rid the world of polio and sustains the ideal of a world forever free from this deadly and crippling disease.

  • Page last reviewed: April 28, 2014
  • Page last updated: April 28, 2014
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