What Is Polio?

The Disease

Poliomyelitis is a highly infectious disease that most commonly affects children under the age of 5.

Most know it as poliovirus. The virus is spread person to person, typically through contaminated water. It can attack the nervous system, and in some instances, lead to paralysis. Although there is no cure, there is a safe and effective vaccine – one which Rotary and our partners use to immunize over 2.5 billion children worldwide.

Bill Gates Administering a Polio Vaccine

The world’s progress in fighting polio might be one of the best-kept secrets in global health.

Bill Gates, Co-Founder and Co-Chair, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

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The Facts


Polio mainly affects children under age 5.


There is no cure, but polio is preventable with a vaccine.


Only two countries remain endemic.


We’ve reduced cases by 99.9% since 1988.


Until we end polio forever, every child is at risk.

Progress to End Polio

  • 1988

  • 1991

    1991 Map
  • 1994

    1994 Map
  • 1997

    1997 Map
  • 1998

    1998 map
  • 2000

    2000 map
  • 2003

    2003 map
  • 2010

    2010 map
  • 2012

    2012 map
  • 2020 - Present

    2020 map

Who is Affected?

Unless we eradicate polio, within 10 years, as many as 200,000 new cases could occur around the world each year. In the past few years, only two countries have reported cases of polio caused by the wild virus, but no child anywhere is safe until we’ve vaccinated every child.

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Minda Dentler: Ironman athlete, polio survivor, and mother

Faces of the Fight

Minda Dentler: Ironman athlete, polio survivor, and mother reflects on India's success in going more than 6 years without a new polio case.

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The History

Take a look at the recent history and major milestones of polio.

  • 1894

    The first major documented polio outbreak in the United States occurs in Vermont; 18 deaths and 132 cases of permanent paralysis are reported.

  • 1905

    Swedish physician Ivar Wickman suggests that polio is a contagious disease that can spread from person to person, and also recognizes that polio could be present in people who show no symptoms.

  • 1908

    2 physicians in Vienna, Karl Landsteiner and Erwin Popper, discover that polio is caused by a virus.

  • 1916

    A major polio outbreak in New York City kills more than 2,000 people. Across the United States, polio takes the lives of about 6,000 people, and paralyzes thousands more.

  • 1929

    Philip Drinker and Harvard University’s Louis Agassiz Shaw Jr. invent an artificial respirator for patients suffering from paralytic polio — the iron lung.

  • 1955

    A vaccine developed by Dr. Jonas Salk is declared “safe and effective.”

  • 1960

    The U.S. government licenses the oral polio vaccine developed by Dr. Albert Sabin. 

  • 1979

    Rotary International begins its fight against polio with a multi-year project to immunize 6 million children in the Philippines.

  • 1985

    Rotary International launches PolioPlus, the first and largest internationally coordinated private-sector support of a public health initiative, with an initial fundraising target of US$120 million.

  • 1988

    Rotary International and the World Health Organization launch the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. There are an estimated 350,000 cases of polio in 125 countries.

  • 1994

    The International Commission for the Certification of Poliomyelitis Eradication announces that polio has been eliminated from the Americas.

  • 1995

    Health workers and volunteers immunize 165 million children in China and India in 1 week. Rotary launches the PolioPlus Partners program, enabling Rotary members in polio-free countries to provide support to fellow members in polio-affected countries for polio eradication activities.

  • 2000

    A record 550 million children – almost 10% of the world's population – receive the oral polio vaccine. The Western Pacific region, spanning from Australia to China, is declared polio-free.

  • 2003

    The Rotary Foundation raises $119 million in a 12-month campaign. Rotary's total contribution to polio eradication exceeds $500 million. Six countries remain polio-endemic – Afghanistan, Egypt, India, Niger, Nigeria, Pakistan.

  • 2004

    In Africa, synchronized National Immunization Days in 23 countries target 80 million children, the largest coordinated polio immunization effort on the continent.

  • 2006

    The number of polio-endemic countries drops to 4 - Afghanistan, India, Nigeria, Pakistan.

  • 2009

    Rotary's overall contribution to the eradication effort nears $800 million. In January, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation pledges $355 million and issues Rotary a challenge grant of $200 million. This announcement will result in a combined $555 million in support of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.

  • 2011

    Rotary welcomes celebrities and other major public figures into a new public awareness campaign and ambassador program called "This Close" to ending polio. Program ambassadors include Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Desmond Tutu, violinist Itzhak Perlman, co-founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Bill Gates, Grammy Award-winning singers Angelique Kidjo and Ziggy Marley, and environmentalist Dr. Jane Goodall. Rotary's funding for polio eradication exceeds $1 billion.

  • 2012

    India surpasses 1 year without a recorded case of polio and is removed from the list of countries where polio is endemic. Polio remains endemic in just 3 countries. Rotary surpasses its $200 Million Challenge fundraising goal more than 5  months earlier than expected.

  • 2014

    India goes 3 full years without a new case caused by the wild poliovirus, and the World Health Organization certifies the South-East Asia region polio-free. Polio cases are down over 99% since 1988.

  • 2019

    Nigeria goes 3 full years without a new case caused by the wild poliovirus.

  • 2020

    The World Health Organization certifies the African region wild polio-free.

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