How Polio Was Eradicated

By Victoria Simpson on May 27 2020 in Science

A child being administered an oral polio vaccine. Image credit: Gorlov-KV/
A child being administered an oral polio vaccine. Image credit: Gorlov-KV/
  • Polio infected tens of thousands of people each year in the US before a vaccine was invented in the 1950s.
  • Polio can paralyze you for life, and it can be deadly if it reaches the breathing muscles.
  • Polio has been eradicated from 80% of the Earth by the administration of vaccines.

Polio is a dangerous contagious viral disease that primarily infects children under the age of five. It can also target anyone who has not received a polio vaccine. Polio causes irreversible paralysis in about 1 every 200 people who get it. This paralysis often targets a patient’s legs by damaging their nerves, but it can also move up the body to affect the breathing muscles. If this happens, it can become difficult to breathe, and a person can actually die from polio.

Since 1979, there have been no cases of polio that have originated in the US, but some people have brought it in, traveling from abroad. This feared disease prompted the development of a polio vaccine beginning in the 1950s, resulting in many countries now being able to live polio-free. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), polio still exists in some of the world's poorest communities, but amazingly, 80% of the world is now living in areas in which the disease has been eradicated. 

What is polio’s story and how did we succeed in getting rid of it, at least in some places? Here is a brief look at the virus and its history. 


A polio patient with deformities. Image credit: Podsy/

The first major outbreaks of polio occurred in Europe in the early 1800s.  The disease made its way to North America about 90 to 100 years later, with the first polio outbreak occurring in the US in 1894 in Vermont. The disease moved onto attack Canada in 1910. Health officials knew little about the illness then, and did not realize it was contagious. Between its start on the continent and the development of a vaccine to treat it in 1953, according to the Canadian Public Health Association, polio epidemics often hit areas every summer or fall, primarily sickening children and youth. 

Attempts were made to control the spread of polio once it was discovered it was caused by a virus, and this included practicing social distancing. Schools were closed, as were movie theaters and other public places of gathering, but unfortunately, the disease continued to spread. It hit its peak in the early 1950s when in 1952, 58,000 cases of the disease were reported in the US, and more than 3,000 people died from it, with scores more children left paralyzed for life. 


Jonas Salk administering polio vaccine to a patient.

In 1955 Dr. Jonas Salk finished human trials for the polio vaccine in two million school children, and declared it to be effective. Soon following this, an inoculation campaign began across the US, and by 1979 polio was eradicated from the country. Health officials now advise that children get four doses of polio vaccine via a needle to the arm or leg at 2 months of age, 4 months, 6 through 18 months, and 4 to 6 years old. 

Today, the WHO, in partnership with the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, has reduced the cases of polio in the world by 99% by administering the polio vaccine around the world. The only places where polio remains endemic in the world today are in northern Nigeria and on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The WHO’s  initiative aims to create a world free of polio in the future, in which no one needs to suffer through a life of paralysis, or die from what is now a vaccine-preventable disease. 

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