Thanks to global vaccination efforts, poliovirus is on the brink of worldwide eradication. However, achieving eradication and preventing re-emergence requires intimate knowledge of how the virus persists. In order to understand a system that is complicated by heavy human intervention, such as vaccination, it is important to establish a baseline by studying that system in the absence of intervention. Historical epidemics that predate the use of vaccines can be used to disentangle the epidemiology of disease from vaccine effects. Using historical polio data from large-scale epidemics in the USA, mathematical models were used to track poliovirus and to reconstruct the millions of unobserved sub-clinical infections that propagated the disease. This identified why polio epidemics are explosive and seasonal, and why they vary geographically. These analyses show that the historical expansion of polio is straightforwardly explained by the demographic “baby boom” during the postwar period rather than improvements in hygiene. Researchers were also able to demonstrate that poliovirus persisted primarily through symptomless individuals, and that in the event of local virus extinction, infection was reintroduced from other geographic locations.
Disease transmission models show that silent transmission of poliovirus could continue for more than three years with no reported cases. To ensure that the disease is truly eradicated, aggressive surveillance programs and vaccination campaigns must continue in endemic countries for years after the last reported case. Once we’ve eradicated polio – or think we’ve eradicated polio – we probably should intensify the environmental surveillance to make sure the virus is not just lurking under the hood at very low levels. Polio eradication is about eradicating the virus, it’s not about eradicating the disease paralytic poliomyeltis.
Unraveling the Transmission Ecology of Polio. (2015) PLoS Biol 13 (6): e1002172. doi: 10.1371/journal. pbio.1002172
Sustained and coordinated vaccination efforts have brought polio eradication within reach. Anticipating the eradication of wild poliovirus (WPV) and the subsequent challenges in pre- venting its re-emergence, we look to the past to identify why polio rose to epidemic levels in the mid-20th century, and how WPV persisted over large geographic scales. We analyzed an extensive epidemiological dataset, spanning the 1930s to the 1950s and spatially repli- cated across each state in the United States, to glean insight into the drivers of polio’s his- torical expansion and the ecological mode of its persistence prior to vaccine introduction. We document a latitudinal gradient in polio’s seasonality. Additionally, we fitted and validat- ed mechanistic transmission models to data from each US state independently. The fitted models revealed that: (1) polio persistence was the product of a dynamic mosaic of source and sink populations; (2) geographic heterogeneity of seasonal transmission conditions ac- count for the latitudinal structure of polio epidemics; (3) contrary to the prevailing “disease of development” hypothesis, our analyses demonstrate that polio’s historical expansion was straightforwardly explained by demographic trends rather than improvements in sanitation and hygiene; and (4) the absence of clinical disease is not a reliable indicator of polio trans- mission, because widespread polio transmission was likely in the multiyear absence of clinical disease. As the world edges closer to global polio eradication and continues the strategic withdrawal of the Oral Polio Vaccine (OPV), the regular identification of, and rapid response to, these silent chains of transmission is of the utmost importance.