The Political Fight Against Polio

Written by Sarah Stillman, staff writer for The New Yorker and a visiting scholar at N.Y.U.’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute on The New Yorker.

“When I first saw the musical “Annie,” as a kid, I wasn’t all that interested in the zippy orphan star. I fixated, instead, on President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his bulky wheelchair. Polio put him there, I learned; this was the first I’d ever heard of the virus, from which even White House-bound men weren’t exempt.

I took from that discovery something simple and a little selfish: a child’s sense of relief that Americans had once feared an often-crippling disease until, one day, a page of the script was flipped. In 1952, less than a decade after F.D.R.’s death, a vaccine emerged that reduced the number of U.S. cases from a high of nearly sixty thousand, that same year, to virtually zero, by 1979. After that, polio could be written up as a relic for museums and musicals; we could grow up to be the scourge’s historians, we were told, and not its memoirists.

That “we,” of course, has since proven uncomfortably limited, a symptom of its own “Annie”-style naïveté. Today, polio still claims a certain corner of the globe. A wildly successful eradication campaign reduced new incidents of the virus by more than ninety-nine per cent around the world from 1980 to 2003—a pretty remarkable feat. Yet, just last month, the World Health Organization declared that a revived spread of polio is “a public health emergency of international concern.” All the more striking about this reëmergence is its geography: a map of polio, it turns out, is a map of modern political violence.

Where does polio refuse to die? The three countries where it remains endemic are Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria. Where else does the risk linger in 2014? The long list of trouble spots includes Syria, Iraq, South Sudan, Somalia, Cameroon, and the Central African Republic, with recent appearances in Gaza and the West Bank.

This month, we’re moving deeper into polio’s “high season,” which, in much of the world, stretches from May until August. If the geography of polio mirrors that of conflict, then the challenge of eradication is, inevitably, as much political and diplomatic as it is epidemiological. And that’s where the plot gets messy.”

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