Human Achievement of the Day: Polio Eradication

Polio used to be a parent’s worst nightmare. The virus mostly affects children, and hampers the brain’s ability to communicate with muscles. While its effects are usually temporary, polio can lead to permanent paralysis and even death. If the paralysis reaches the respiratory system, victims will be unable to breathe on their own, which led to the depressing sight of hospital wards filled with rows and rows of iron lungs (pictured below). Polio can also cause permanent muscle atrophy, making walking difficult long after the disease runs its course. It has no cure, so once a child catches it, they can only hope their case is a mild one.

Then, in the 1950s, Jonas Salk invented the polio vaccine—a human achievement that continues to improve millions of lives even today. Within just a few years, polio completely disappeared in the United States. Parents all over America no longer had to fear that the virus would rob their children of the ability to walk. Children no longer had to avoid their friends who might have infected them, and did not have to dread the possibility of spending two weeks inside an iron lung.

The developing world has been less fortunate. But more and more, some of the world’s poorest people are able to share in what the economist Julian Simon called “our victory against death.” Polio has been gone from the U.S. for decades, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that a global campaign to eradicate the disease began in earnest. Even in the current decade, regions of Africa continued to grapple with polio and its human costs—until now.

A New York Times story recently celebrated the fact that the entire continent of Africa has not had a single case of polio for more than a year. That’s 1.1 billion people, polio-free. Millions of childhoods are safer than they have ever been from a disease that has been a scourge for thousands of years.

What made this human achievement possible? Jonas Salk’s vaccine, most obviously. But the root cause is what economist and historian Deirdre McCloskey calls the “Great Enrichment.” As more and more people come around to the types of values that Human Achievement Hour celebrates—progress, dynamism, openness, and a general pro-human outlook—the world gets ever richer. And nowhere are those values having a greater impact than in the developing world. The more that people celebrate and honor human achievement, the more of it there will be.

Thanks to that ethos, more people today actually have lights that they can leave on, or turn off, as they wish. And when they do turn out those lights for the night, they can sleep well, knowing that thanks to people like Jonas Salk and his many successors who are working on cures for malaria, HIV/AIDS, and other diseases, their children will grow up to be healthier and wealthier than they were.