In January 2012, India's government announced that not a single child had been infected with polio in the past year. This is a huge step, considering that three years ago, India had more polio cases than any other country. Susan Mackay of our Polio Eradication team shares some facts about the disease and explains why there's still work to be done.
What is polio?
Polio is a highly infectious viral disease that's spread from person to person through dirty water and poor sanitation. It's been causing death and paralysis for much of human history – there are even ancient Egyptian paintings depicting the disease. When the virus gets into the body by mouth, in some cases it can cause paralysis, most often in the legs, when the affected muscles stop working completely.
Why does is spread so easily among children?
Young children often play outside or on the floor, then put their hands in their mouths. In areas where sanitation is poor it’s very easy for a child to get the virus onto their hands, or to be infected by contaminated food and drink.
What can it do to a child?
Only about one in every 200 cases results in paralysis. So when you see a child with polio, many more children will have been infected. Some get flu-like symptoms; others show no symptoms at all, but as they pass the virus out in their faeces they can still infect other children.
Zahid, 6, practises walking with the aid of metal bars in the city of Karachi, Pakistan. Zahid was diagnosed with polio in November 2010. © UNICEF/NYHQ2011-0198/Asad Zaidi
Where in the world are children still at threat from polio?
In Pakistan, Nigeria and Afghanistan polio is still endemic, meaning children have always been at risk from the disease.
In these and other countries, densely populated areas without good sanitation, like large urban slums, are high-risk areas for polio. When lots of people arrive in an area at the same time – for example, as refugees during a conflict – the water and sanitation facilities often can't cope. That's when polio can spread.
What's UNICEF doing about it?
UNICEF is the biggest procurer and distributer of the oral polio vaccine, which is still the most effective way of stopping the virus.
We work closely with governments and partners like the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Rotary to support national vaccination programmes, and run door-to-door campaigns within communities to vaccinate children. We also help educate individual families about polio, and what they can do to prevent it. This education is as much about hygiene – using toilets and hand washing – as it is about getting children vaccinated.
A health worker gives an oral polio vaccine to a toddler at a mobile health clinic in southern Pakistan © UNICEF/NYHQ2011-1668/Warrick Page
Can we make polio history?
Yes we can! Since the late 1980s we've cut the number of polio cases by more than 99 per cent. We're closer to wiping the disease out all together that ever before, so continued donor support is more valuable than ever.
We won't stop until every single child is protected from polio, but it costs money to buy and distribute vaccines, and to educate communities about polio prevention. Our success relies on our supporters.
Donate to UNICEF today and help us wipe out polio for good.
Isabelle Andrews is Digital Editor at UNICEF UK