Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

Columns

November 7, 2013

Wonders of modern medicine

ASHLAND — One of the greatest wonders of modern medicine is the ability to prevent and eradicate diseases through vaccinations. One of the most atrocious maladies to terrorize human kind, the smallpox virus, was vanquished to this history books thanks to a vaccine. But there remain others that, despite the development of vaccines, have hung on but are within reach of being eradicated, as long as the world can remain focused and committed to doing so.

This reality was underscored this week as the airwaves filled with media coverage of a polio outbreak in Syria. There have now been 10 children paralyzed by the disease, and there are roughly two dozen other suspected cases.

The fear is that the highly contagious disease, which is carried in the digestive tracts of individuals, will spread rapidly among the millions of displaced refugees, living in unsanitary conditions. Polio primarily affects children younger than five. During the first half of the 20th Century, it crippled more than a half a million children annually worldwide.

During the height of outbreaks in the U.S. during the 1940s and 1950s, it affected approximately 35,000 Americans each year. But thanks to the development of a vaccine and aggressive public health campaigns ensuring children received them, it waned.

The World Health Organization declared North America polio-free in the 1990s. Since that time, cases have cropped up here and there, but my generation has not seen the widespread outbreaks our parents and grandparents once lived in fear of.

Therefore, the outbreak of an unfamiliar disease in a country like Syria is a news story that can be hard for Americans to truly wrap their brains around and understand. But like the U.S., Syria was once declared polio free, too.

Before last month, the last reported cases in Syria occurred in 1999. Then civil war broke out in 2011, ravaging the Syrian public health system, which had once effectively delivered vaccinations to the country’s youngest citizens. The country’s polio vaccination rate plummeted from 90 percent a few short years ago to an estimated 60 percent, according to WHO.

While health officials say it is unlikely the outbreak in Syria will threaten children in the U.S., Americans should pay attention to what has happened there. The virus sickening children there came from somewhere else and is preying only on the unvaccinated.

Like in Syria, vaccination rates have also dropped in the U.S. in recent years, albeit for different reasons. Just this summer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the rate of unvaccinated kindergartners has continued growing. In some states, vaccination rates for some diseases have dipped below 90 percent.

This decline is attributed to a variety of reasons, including the perception of diminished risk of contracting an illness that is no longer prevalent, as well as the stubborn persistence of the myth linking autism and vaccines.

While polio has stayed away for now, other infectious diseases like measles and whooping cough haven’t. Cases of these preventable diseases have been soaring in the U.S. in recent years and are killing American kids. As Syria has demonstrated, diseases don’t care about geopolitical borders and they don’t care why someone wasn’t vaccinated. They only do what they know how to do: spread and sicken.

That’s why in addition to donating money to organizations that provide polio vaccinations in countries around the world, the best thing Americans can do to support polio victims in Syria is to vaccinate their own children. We can’t let apathy and ignorance prevent the world from confining another terrible disease to the history books. There are already enough challenges.

For more information on the Global Polio Eradication Initiative or to make a donation visit: polioeradication.org

CARRIE STAMBAUGH is a freelance writer living in Ashland.

 

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