Although here in the Western world it is commonly believed that polio has been eradicated, the World Health Organization has confirmed an outbreak of polio in Syria. The 2.5 year-long conflict in that country has created optimal conditions for the spread of communicable diseases and has disrupted routine immunization programs. Health workers have warned that the unsanitary conditions in which many of the millions of displaced Syrians live are breeding grounds for diseases such as polio, which is transmitted through contaminated food or water supplies. With as many as 4,000 refugees fleeing the country every day, the risk of the disease spreading is particularly serious. (1) Public health officials have speculated that a possible source may have been jihadi fighters traveling to Syria from Pakistan which, along with Afghanistan and Nigeria, are the only countries where the disease is still endemic. (2) With its reemergence then, the question comes to mind: will polio ever be completely wiped out? If we look to history, Dr. Simon Flexner, then Director of Research in the Rockefeller Institute, in his address to the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences in 1916 stated his opinion that “infantile paralysis [or polio] will continue to reappear in sporadic cases because it has become too firmly entrenched to ever to be eradicated.” (3) Indeed, with this most current reemergence in Syria, Flexner’s words seem as sage as ever.
(2) U.N. Confirms an Outbreak of Polio in Syria. Nick Cumming-Bruce, The New York Times, October 29, 2013 http://nyti.ms/1aWXjS5
(3) Polio may reappear. Editorial. Buffalo Sanitary Bulletin. New Series Vol. XI (11) 1916. P. 124