History of Polio

In the early 20th century, polio was one of the most feared diseases in industrialized countries, paralysing hundreds of thousands of children every year. Soon after the introduction of effective vaccines in the 1950s and 1960s however, polio was brought under control and practically eliminated as a public health problem in these countries.

Use this interactive timeline to trace the history of polio from 1580 B.C. to the present.

  • 1580 – 1350 BC

    An Egyptian stele portrays a priest with a withered leg, suggesting that polio has existed for thousands of years

  • 1789

    British physician Dr Michael Underwood attempts the first-known clinical description of polio called “debility of the lower extremities”

  • 1840

    In Germany, Dr Jacob von Heine conducts the first systemcatic investigation of polio and develops the theory that the disease may be contagious.

  • 1894

    The first significant outbreak of infantile paralysis subsequently identified as polio is documented in the United States of America

  • 1907

    Swedish paediatrician Dr Ivar WIckman categorizes the different clinical types of polio

  • 1908

    Austrian physicians Karl Landsteiner and Erwin Popper hypothesize that polio may be caused by a virus

  • 1916

    A polio epidemic in New York, USA, heightens concern on both sides of the Atlantic and accelerates research into how the disease is spread

  • 1931

    Sir Macfarlane Burnet and Dame Jeam MacNamara identify several types of polio virus, known as types 1, 2, and 3

  • 1938

    The United States of America establishes the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, which later becomes the March of Dimes – a fund raising organization focusing on polio research

  • 1948

    Thomas Weller and Frederick Robbins successfully grow live polio virus in live cells. Six years later they receive the Nobel Prize for their work.

  • 1955

    Dr Jonas Salk develops the first vaccine against polio –an injectable, inactivated (killed) polio vaccine (IPV)

  • 1961

    Dr Albert Sabin develops a “live” oral vaccine against polio (OPV), which rapidly becomes the vaccine of choice for most national immunization programmes in the world

  • 1970 – 1980

    Lameness surveys demonstrate that polio is widespread in many developing countries, leading to the introduction of routine immunization with OPV in almost all national immunization programmes

  • 1974

    The World Health Assembly passes a resolution to create the Expanded Programme on Immunization (EPI) to bring vaccines to the world’ s children

  • 1985

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

  • 1988

    Polio paralyses more than 1000 children worldwide everyday. Rotary International’s actions catalyze the World Health Assembly to launch the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.

  • 1990

    The Global Polio Laboratory Network is formally established to detect the presence of wild and vaccine-derived polio viruses in countries.

  • 1991

    The last case of wild polio occurs in the WHO region of the Americas. He is a three year old boy called Luis Fermin Tenorio living in Junin, Northern Peru.

  • 1994

    The WHO region of the Americas is certified polio-free. In China, 80 million children are vaccinated

  • 1995

    More than 56 million children are vaccinated in 19 countries of the WHO European and Eastern Mediterranean Regions. In India, 87 million children are vaccinated

  • 1996

    Nelson Mandela officially launches the Kick Polio Out ofAfrica Campaign and 420 million African children vaccinated during National Immunization Days.

  • 1997

    The last case of wild polio occurs in the WHO Western Pacific Region. She is a 15 month old girl called Mum Chanty living near Phnom Penh, Cambodia

  • 1998

    In Turkey on 26 November 1998, Melik Minas, a 33 month old unvaccinated child is the last child paralysed by indigenous wild poliovirus in the European region

  • 1999

    The UN Secretary General agrees to negotiate truces for immunization in the Democratic Republic of Congo. National Immunization Days are conducted in war torn Liberia.

  • 2000

    The WHO Western Pacific Region is certified polio free. A record 550 million children –almost one-tenth of the world’ s population –receive the oral polio vaccine.

  • 2001

    575 million children are vaccinated in 94 countries, including 35 million in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and 16 million in conflict-affected countries in central Africa.

  • 2002

    The WHO European region is certified polio-free. 500 million children are vaccinated in 100 countries.

  • 2003

    In Northern Nigeria, polio immunization campaigns are suspended following unfounded rumours regarding the safety of the polio vaccine. Subsequently a new outbreak occurs.

  • 2004

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

  • 2005

    New monovalent oral polio vaccines (mOPV) become available to enhance the impact of supplementary immunization activities

  • 2006

    Four endemic countries remain: Afghanistan, India, Nigeria and Pakistan. Outbreaks in Yemen and Indonesia–which suffer the largest, single-country outbreaks in recent years –are successfully stopped.

  • 2007

    More than 400 million children are immunized in 27 countries. On International Peace Day, 80 000 previously inaccessible children are reached with polio vaccine in southern Afghanistan

  • 2008

    A new outbreak of polio spreads from Nigeria to West Africa. Polio eradication becomes the World Health Organization’s "top operational priority"

  • 2009

    Outbreaks in Central African Republic, Guinea, Kenya and Cote d’Ivoire are successfully stopped

  • 2010

    Large outbreaks with more than 400 cases wild poliovirus occur in both Tajikistan and Congo. Transmission is stopped by the end of the year in both countries

  • 2011

    The last case of wild poliovirus is reported in India

  • 2012

    The last case of wild poliovirus type 3 is recorded in Nigeria in November

  • 2014

    The WHO Region of South-East Asia is declared polio free by the World Health Organization

  • 2016

    The globally synchronised switch from trivalent to bivalent oral poliovirus vaccine is implemented in April 2016. This is the first part of the phased withdrawal of all oral polio vaccine


It took somewhat longer for polio to be recognized as a major problem in developing countries. Lameness surveys during the 1970s revealed that the disease was also prevalent in developing countries. As a result, during the 1970s routine immunization was introduced worldwide as part of national immunization programmes, helping to control the disease in many developing countries.

Rotary International launched a global effort to immunize the world’s children against polio in 1985 followed by the establishment of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) in 1988. When the GPEI started, polio paralysed more than 1000 children worldwide every day. Since then, more than 2.5 billion children have been immunized against polio thanks to the cooperation of more than 200 countries and 20 million volunteers.

Today, wild poliovirus continues to circulate in only two countries, and global incidence of polio cases has decreased by 99%.

There has also been success in eradicating certain strains of the virus; of the three types of wild polioviruses (WPVs), the last case of type 2 was reported in 1999 and its eradication was declared in September 2015; the most recent case of type 3 dates to November 2012 and this strain was declared as globally eradicated in October 2019.