There was a time when polio was one of the most feared diseases in the world. There was a time when, each year, thousands of children were left paralysed by this highly infectious virus.

But, today, in most countries, the ghosts of polio have been laid to rest – the terrorizing disease is now a distant threat.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2013-0657/Noorani
A baby receives a dose of oral polio vaccine at a refugee camp for Syrians in Jordan. Polio cannot be cured; it can only be prevented.

Extraordinary battle

Heroic efforts by millions of health workers have woven the extraordinary narrative of polio’s decline over the past three decades. Polio cannot be cured; it can only be prevented. The disease has been stopped in its tracks by effective vaccines, which, to date, are the strongest shield against its spread. According to WHO, polio cases decreased by over 99 per cent from 1988 to 2012 – from an estimated 350,000 cases to 223 reported cases.

India, long regarded as the world’s epicentre of polio, and the most difficult place to end polio, has not recorded a single case in more than two years. The country is now just months away from being declared polio-free, and on the verge of making history.

But the success stories in the global eradication of polio are often clouded by concerns emanating from the only three countries in which polio is still endemic – Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan. In these last hideouts of the disease, polio is not just present. It is spreading.

The disease strikes communities weakened by conflict, displacement and poverty, and, most importantly, in areas in which children remain unvaccinated.

Polio makes a comeback

Since January 2013, six previously polio-free countries have reported new outbreaks. Polio has made a dreadful comeback in war-torn Somalia after six years – and it’s the most serious outbreak in the world, right now. Since the first case was identified in Mogadishu in May, the virus has spread rapidly.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2012-0071/OLIVIER ASSELIN Ms. Farrow prepares to give a baby a dose of oral polio vaccine during a 2012 visit to N’Djamena, Chad. “It’s time. It’s past time for polio to be finished,” she says.

WHO has recorded the first suspected polio outbreak in the Syrian Arab Republic after 14 years – which could spell disaster for a country that’s already lost its infrastructure to its devastating, 31-month-long conflict. Outbreaks in non-endemic countries such as these show that, as long as polio exists anywhere in the world, children everywhere are at risk.

Actress and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Mia Farrow, who had a close encounter with the debilitating disease, knows its terrifying consequences all too well. “I had polio as a child. I was one of the lucky ones to escape without any permanent effect. But, at 9, it was my introduction in the world of fear and a world of suffering and death. And my son who is adopted from India is paraplegic, as a result of polio.”

Go the extra mile

On World Polio Day, a day that celebrates the birth of Jonas Salk, the world famous virologist who developed the polio vaccine in 1955, the urgency to go that extra mile and reach every single child with the vaccination is evident.

“While we have eliminated polio, it’s not something we, in America, in the developed world, have had to deal with for half a century…what these kids [in the developing world] are going through is unnecessary,” says Ms. Farrow.

“It’s time. It’s past time for polio to be finished.”

Story was published on 24 October 2013 UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Mia Farrow says it’s past time for polio to end