CONTINUED TOLL: Although polio has disappeared from the Western Hemisphere and Europe, the virus still permanently cripples children in Africa and Asia every year. Image: Joao Henriques/Redux Pictures
- The global campaign to eradicate polio began in 1988. Since then, naturally occurring cases worldwide have dropped to, at last count, around 650 in 2011.
- Completely eliminating polio requires a change in the current vaccination program because one component in the most widely used vaccine now causes more cases of polio than it prevents.
- The World Health Assembly is expected to approve a plan this May that should decrease the number of vaccine-linked cases of polio and may speed up overall eradication efforts.
- Yet questions have arisen over the safety of making the change rapidly. If health officials do not manage this transition correctly, polio could continue to cripple children for years to come.
The shadows lengthen in a guesthouse cafeteria on the sprawling campus of christian Medical College, Vellore, in India. Wrapped up as he is in an issue that has possessed him for years, T. Jacob John notices neither the dying light nor the gathering mosquitoes. He is talking about the oral polio vaccine.
A slight man who speaks and moves with a speed that belies his 76 years, John is one of India’s leading polio experts. Trained as a pediatrician, virologist and microbiologist, he is also a longtime critic of the continued reliance on the oral polio vaccine—OPV in polio speak—used by the nearly 25-year-old international campaign to rid the planet of the paralyzing and sometimes fatal disease. The vaccine is at once an excellent and an imperfect tool. Inexpensive and easy to administer (each dose consists of a few drops of serum on the tongue), it has brought the world to the point where polio eradication is visible on the horizon. Indeed, the World Health Organization announced this past January that there have been no cases of naturally occurring polio in India for a year. But if the distribution of the vaccine is not choreographed with exquisite care, its continued use—at least as it is currently formulated—could actually keep the world from eliminating polio.