What Does World Polio Day Mean During A Vaccine-Preventable Pandemic?

By Andi Kezh, Task Force Intern

Born in India in 1992, Grace Rossow didn’t receive the polio vaccine as a baby and contracted polio before she was a year old.

In 1993, she was adopted by a family in St. Louis, Missouri, and taken to Shriners Hospital for treatment. Unlike many Americans today, Rossow, 29, hasn’t forgotten about the risks of polio and understands the value of infectious disease preventions like vaccines.

Rossow’s left leg was paralyzed by polio, and now she wears a KAFO (Knee, Ankle, Foot Orthotic) brace which “allows me to walk and navigate my life, but I always wonder how that vaccine would have changed my life,” she said.

Grace Rossow uses her life experiences to advocate for health. Photo courtesy of Rossow.

October 24 is World Polio Day. For those unaffected by polio this day may not seem significant, but for Rossow and those who know the risks of polio firsthand, World Polio Day symbolizes the health challenges that many still face.

Polio may seem like a distant and archaic ailment as countries like the US have been polio-free since 1979. This infectious disease, which impacts the central nervous system with debilitating and sometimes deadly symptoms including paralysis and neurological complications, might mistakenly be viewed as a resolved health crisis thanks to vaccine advancements and health privileges that many take for granted.

Indeed, through the efforts of many partners, including The Task Force’s Polio Eradication Center, polio has declined 99.9% globally since 1988. However, this disease has yet to be fully eradicated, leaving some still exposed and the risk for a resurgence, so it remains a priority for public health workers.

Although wild poliovirus has been eradicated in every part of the world except Pakistan and Afghanistan, there are vaccine-derived polio outbreaks in places where the vaccine is given orally, including in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. These outbreaks are caused by a combination of low vaccination rates and when the weakened live virus in the oral vaccine reverts back to its paralytic form. The Task Force’s Polio Eradication Surge Capacity Team is working with affected countries to roll out a new oral vaccine, introduced earlier this year, that will reduce vaccine-derived polio cases while also improving protection against wild poliovirus.

Unfortunately, both COVID-19 lockdowns and misinformation about vaccines have had an impact on polio efforts, slowing the vaccine roll-out and allowing cases to increase. The Task Force’s Senior Epidemiologist Victor Eboh has seen this in places like Sierra Leone and Liberia where he supports polio eradication efforts.

“COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy is seeping into polio vaccine uptake and affecting our efforts to protect communities against polio and reduce polio cases, so we have to work even harder to communicate about the safety, importance, and development of the new polio vaccine,” said Eboh.

As of late September, there were 684 reported vaccine-derived cases and two confirmed wild polio cases globally. Epidemiologists like Eboh are working hard to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 and maintain progress toward polio eradication.

As a polio survivor, Rossow is a staunch advocate for vaccines and other public health tools and she uses social media to educate and engage others, with more than 2,000 followers on Twitter.

“We have a way to suppress or eradicate a disease such as polio or smallpox, and we should use it,” she said.

Since her diagnosis, Rossow has endured 18 surgeries and procedures for orthopedic conditions caused by polio and to improve her quality of life. As she has gotten older, her orthopedic issues have stabilized, however neurological issues have begun to develop due to her paralysis.

During the pandemic, she has encouraged people to trust science and benefit from the tools we have available to fight COVID-19, using her experience as an example of the benefits of vaccines.

The parallels between polio and COVID-19 remain similar and prescient even seven decades after polio ravaged the U.S., noted Rossow, and “our parents and grandparents did anything they could to prevent us from contracting polio.”

“It is horrifying how few people remember that we took the same measures, social distancing, not seeing friends, and isolation,” said Rossow. She posts on social media with the hashtag #VaccinesWork as she compares the successes of the global polio vaccination campaigns to the potential that COVID-19 vaccines can have on ending this pandemic.

For polio survivors, World Polio Days means more than just remembering the past. It means acknowledging the risks that many still face, the progress that can be made with new advancements in treatments, and the consequences of not utilizing these advancements.

Header photo: Health workers review polio surveillance data in Sierra Leone. Photo courtesy of Sierra Leone Field Epidemiology Training Program.

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