Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates on July 20 explained how the United States fought the polio epidemic, “a terrible and now largely forgotten disease”. According to GatesNotes, polio attacks the body’s nervous system, crippling patients, and in worst cases, the disease paralyses respiratory muscles and makes it difficult to breathe, sometimes resulting in death. While sharing a video of “the iron lung,” Gates said that the metal tank is a mechanical respirator that saved the lives of thousands of polio victims.
As per the blog, using changes in air pressure, the iron lung pulls air in and out of a patient’s lungs, allowing them to breathe and stay alive. Gates explained that during the height of the polio epidemic in the US in the 1940s and 1950s, rows of iron lungs filled hospital wards to treat thousands of polio patients, most of them children.
Gates said, “During the height of the U.S. polio epidemic, the iron lung was one of the greatest tools used to fight polio. Today, it’s the iron will of the thousands of workers and their supporters who are committed to finishing the job”.
Further, the Microsoft co-founder went on to say that the reason we don’t see iron lungs anymore is because of polio vaccines, which were developed in the 1950s. He said that the vaccines were so effective in protecting people from polio that in 1988, the world decided to eradicate the disease. “Since then, wild polio cases have dropped by more than 99.9 per cent – from more than 350,000 a year in 125 countries to fewer than 200 cases last year in just two countries – Afghanistan and Pakistan,” the blog read.
“We still aren’t reaching areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Outbreaks of other forms of polio continue to crop up in under-immunized communities across Africa and parts of Asia. And the (COVID-19) pandemic continues to interrupt polio campaigns and routine immunizations,” Gates said.
Polio program will be used for responding to other health emergencies
Moreover, Gates said that the coronavirus pandemic now has reminded the world of what a precious resource the global polio program is. He said that thousands of polio workers shifted their focus to help contain the spread of COVID-19 by teaching communities how to stay safe, distributing soap and hand sanitiser, and supporting disease surveillance and contact tracing.
Polio Emergency Operation Centers, which are basically local, field-based offices that work to urgently stop the spread of polio and have also tackled other diseases, including Ebola, quickly pivoted to guide the response to COVID-19. The Global Polio Laboratory Network, which consists of 145 labs worldwide, has also stepped in to support COVID-19 surveillance efforts, Gates informed. Further, while calling the Global Polio Eradication Initiative – a public-private partnership that includes our foundation – a “win-win investment,” Gates said that the initiative has adjusted its strategy in a bid to address the health challenges.
“The knowledge, skills, and infrastructure built to end polio and all the suffering it causes will also be used for detecting and responding to other major health emergencies,” Gates said.
“But it will need continued support and resources, including from historical champions like the United States, United Kingdom, and United Arab Emirates, to deliver on these promises,” he added.