Pulitzer Center grantee Tim McGirk looks at “the strange twists the war on polio has taken” since U.S. Special Forces killed Osama bin Laden in 2011. Pakistani health workers posing as vaccinators helped identify bin Laden’s whereabouts, contributing to a major coup in the war on terrorism—but also a setback in the war on polio, as every vaccination worker fell under suspicion.

Tim reports on evidence that militants and their families brought the crippling disease with them when they “left hide-outs along the Afghan-Pakistani border and set off to join in the foment roiling the Middle East.” The same strain of polio virus that plagues Pakistan is now appearing in Iraq and Syria.

This dispatch is part of a four-part series for National Geographic on the war on polio. The second part examines the the role of the health worker considered both a traitor and a hero—Dr. Shakil Afridi, the Pakistani native who helped the CIA track down Osama bin Laden. In 2012 a Pakistani tribal court sentenced Afridi to 33 years in prison. The U.S. State Department is now lobbying for his release.


“Usually, one king comes and one king goes and nothing changes. But this time it’s different,” says the chair of Al Yamamah University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Pulitzer Center grantee Caryle Murphy reports for Foreign Policy on concerns that King Salman bin Abdulaziz may roll back the tentative reforms enacted under Abdullah, his predecessor, especially concerning the rights of women.

The new king is “more friendly to the ultraconservative religious authorities than his predecessor,” Caryle reports. Dissent is discouraged. It is unlikely that the kingdom will end “its crackdown on human rights activists and political dissidents anytime soon.”


In another story for Foreign Policy, Ty McCormick looks at the humanitarian crisis created by South Sudan’s civil war and asks: Did the U.S push too hard for the independence South Sudan celebrated in 2011—and did it do too little to stop the factionalism that has since torn the country apart? Ty discusses the consequences of nostalgia, ethnic tensions, fleeting visions, tough remarks, the collapse of negotiations, and the souring of relations under three different U.S. administrations and almost two decades.

“Now that South Sudan has imploded in spectacular fashion, however, it offers a case study in the limits of American power,” Ty writes. “Not only have its tremendous state-building efforts failed to bear fruit, but the U.S. government now finds itself with virtually no ability to shape events on the ground.”


Pulitzer Center grantees Matthew Niederhauser and John Fitzgerald launch their Megacity Initiative with a photo essay in The Atlantic’s Citylab on Dharavi, the teeming Mumbai community made famous by the movie Slumdog Millionaire. The essay goes beyond the caricatures to reveal a place that is vibrant and culturally rich, with a focus on the Dharavi Biennale, a festival of art, design and performance.

Upcoming work in the Megacity Initiative (also supported by the MIT Center for Advanced Urbanism) will examine the sustainable development of other cities of 10 million inhabitants or more through all forms of media, including virtual reality technology.

Until next week,

Kem Knapp Sawyer
Contributing Editor

India was just declared polio-free THIS WEEK. How the hell do you think that happened, unicorn farts and Whole Foods? No, the goddamn polio vaccine.

Do us all a favor — if you choose not to vaccinate your children, keep them inside forever because they, and you, are a goddamn danger to those who can’t get vaccinated for health reasons or age.

Your opinions are not based in science or reality, and therefore are not valid. They are fucking dangerous and causing outbreaks of potentially deadly diseases. If there were some way to criminally charge anti-vaxxers with reckless endangerment or manslaughter, I would support that completely.



Though often used as a synonym of “isolation" (where sick people are kept from well people), quarantine is technically defined as “to separate those suspected of exposure to an illness to see if they become ill” - hence the quarantine laws for livestock and pets when moving between countries, especially countries where rabies or hoof-and-mouth disease isn’t endemic.

These signs were posted on houses and farms that had a patient (and, as such, exposed family or herd members) infected with, from top to bottom, hoof-and-mouth disease, scarlet fever, diphtheria, smallpox, and poliomyelitis.


Last Person To Get Smallpox Dedicated His Life To Ending Polio

So far, the human race has eliminated just one disease in history: smallpox. But it’s on the cusp of adding a second virus — polio — to that list.

One special man in Somalia was at the battlefront of both eradication efforts. He died unexpectedly last week at age 59 of a sudden illness.

Ali Maow Maalin was the last member of the general public to catch smallpox — worldwide. And he spent the past decade working to end polio in Somalia.

World health leaders called Maalin “an inspiration.” Even in the weeks before his death, he was leading anti-polio campaigns in some of the most unstable parts of Somalia.

Maalin’s fight against polio began in 1977. Jimmy Carter had just been elected U.S. president. Apple Computer had just incorporated in California. And the world was on the verge of wiping out smallpox. Decades of vaccination efforts had pushed the virus into one last corner of the world: Somalia.

Maalin, then a hospital cook near Mogadishu, caught smallpox while driving an infected family to a clinic. He was careful not to spread the disease to anyone. And about three years later, Somalia — and the world — were declared free of smallpox.

Continue reading.

Photo courtesy of the World Health Organization.


We’re getting closer to a world without polio.

(via The Gates Foundation)

August 25, 1921: FDR is Diagnosed with Polio

On this day in 1921, Dr. Robert Lovett diagnosed 39-year-old Franklin Roosevelt with infantile paralysis, more commonly known as polio. The diagnosis came a few weeks after a fall into icy waters that left him unable to feel parts of his body and hold his own weight.

Although there was no cure for polio at the time, FDR participated in rehabilitation classes and swimming exercises to regain his strength before re-entering politics.

Learn about FDR’s recovery process with this preview clip from Ken Burns’s The Roosevelts.

Photo: President Roosevelt in his wheelchair on the porch at Top Cottage in Hyde Park, NY with his dog, Fala, and Ruthie Bie, granddaughter of the cottage’s caretaker. February 1941. Wikimedia Commons.

Billionaire Bill Gates says he is ready to use up his entire fortune to rid the world of polio.

The Microsoft co-founder, said to be worth £41bn ($65bn), says he has no need for money any more as he is “well taken care of” for food and clothes.

Instead, he and wife Melinda want to change the lives of the poorest people in the world and see an end to the disease that paralyses 1,000 children a year. So far Gates and his wife have given away $28bn of their fortune through their charitable foundation, with more than $8?billion of it to improving global health.

The college dropout, 57, has committed another $1.8bn to fighting polio over the next six years by giving children in infected regions just three vaccination drops.

Gates said: “Money has no utility to me beyond a certain point. Its utility is entirely in building an organisation and getting the resources out to the poorest in the world.”

The second richest man in the world, Gates will deliver the BBC’s Dimbleby Lecture later this month, using the value of young human life as his central theme. In that speech he is expected to talk about his dream of every child having the right to a healthy and productive life. He will also explain how technology and innovation can help the world reach his goal.

Gates says he wants to give back to the world that has given him so much. The dad-of-three said: “My wife and I had a long dialogue about how we were going to take the wealth that we’re lucky enough to have and give it back in a way that’s most impactful to the world.

“Both of us worked at Microsoft and saw that if you take innovation and smart people, the ability to measure what’s working, that you can pull together some pretty dramatic things.

“We’re focused on the help of the poorest in the world, which really drives you into vaccination. You can actually take a disease and get rid of it altogether, like we are doing with polio. Polio’s pretty special because once you get an eradication you no longer have to spend money on it; it’s just there as a gift for the rest of time.”

When polio is beaten, Gates said, he will turn his attention to combating malaria and measles.

Even with his charity, he admits he will still be able to leave his children with “a billion or so” each.

Prior to the current civil war Syria had eradicated polio.  The current polio outbreak illustrates the degree to which Syria’s once solid health system has collapsed.  The WHO has detected 23 cases of polio since October of 2013 in Syria but the virus is assumed to have spread widely throughout the war-torn country.

Viruses: the epitome of flexible!

Vaccine-resistant polio strain discovered

Outbreaks of polio are still occurring today, such as the ones in the Republic of the Congo in 2010, Tajikistan in 2010, and China in 2011. The epidemic outbreak in 2010 in the Republic of the Congo differed from the others in its exceptionally high mortality rate of 47%: out of the 445 confirmed cases, nearly 210 died. Researchers first attributed the seriousness of the epidemic to low vaccine coverage.In reality, the cause was something completely different.

An international team including IRD researchers has just identified the virus responsible and sequenced its genetic material. The genetic sequence shows two mutations, unknown until now, of the proteins that form the “shell” (capsid) of the virus. On the face of it, this evolution complicates the task for the antibodies produced by the immune system of the vaccinated patient as they can no longer recognize the viral strain.

Poliovirus. Credit: © Institut Pasteur / C. Dauguet

FDR’s Secret Armored Train Car that helped him keep his Polio secret. Hidden beneath the Waldorf-Astoria platform in NYC and is still there. MIC. .


Lying forgotten two hundred feet below one of America’s most iconic buildings lies the closely guarded secret of one of America’s finest presidents - rusting away when it could be a monument to his greatness. Hidden under the Grand Central train terminal in New York lies a vast area that was unknown to the outside world until the late Eighties. It houses the power network that is responsible for the electricity that runs the entire station - and was a key target for Hitler during the Second World War. But there is also the little known Waldorf-Astoria platform, which is known by Grand Central staff as the Roosevelt Platform. And there is parked the decaying hulk of the train the four-times elected president used to hide his disability, the paralysis from the waist down which forced him to use a wheelchair in private.

It was while holidaying at Campobello Island, New Brunswick, Canada, in 1921 that Roosevelt contracted what is widely assumed to be polio. The result was devastating and he was unable to move his legs again, although using leg irons and hip braces he taught himself to walk short distances with a cane by swivelling his hips. He refused to accept his paralysis, as he was convinced it would ruin any hopes he had of continuing in public office.

Roosevelt had become a state senator in 1910 and after a brief spell in the Navy was voted in as Governor of New York in 1929. His presidency began in 1932 at the height of the depression with nearly a quarter of the working population jobless and two million homeless. In such difficult times, Franklin Delano Roosevelt did not want anybody to know of his own problems and arranged to journey in and out of New York via Grand Central in a personal armoured train. ‘The platform is directly under the Waldorf Astoria and after Roosevelt’s 6000 horse powered diesel train would pull up on the tracks it would let his personal car out of the side,’ said Dan Brucker, 52, spokesperson for Metro North, the company that runs Grand Central Terminal. ‘The car would then drive off the dark and secret platform into an elevator which would take it directly into the Waldorf Astoria garage. ‘This served to protect Roosevelt’s safety and protect his disability through polio from the public at large.’ The train is still visible in the poorly light disused platform, a remnant of a different time in American history, when industrial icons like locomotives ruled the land. ‘Grand Central is always changing with the times,’ he said. ‘For such an impressive and grand space she holds her own very well, even now when she is covered by skyscrapers and the urban jungle.’FDR on the Campaign trail.

After returning from the Yalta conference in the Ukraine which discussed the reorganisation of post-war Europe in Ukraine, he addressed Congress from a sitting position on March 1 - an unprecedented admission of his paralysis, for which he apologised. However, he was still in command of his mental faculties and travelled to Warm Springs, Georgia, where he had built a hydrotherapy facility to combat his paralysis. There he planned for the forthcoming founding conference of the United Nations, for which he had high hopes and even considered resigning from the presidency just one year after his re-election in order to become its first head.

However, he was taken suddenly ill on April 12 and died in The Little White House, which is now a museum. His personal train stopped running - and hasn’t moved much since. During the war, it was not Roosevelt’s train which concerned Hitler but the immense power grid under Grand Central, which to this day powers the transportation of more than one million people per week up and down American’s East Coast. Constructed as part of the redesigned terminal in 1913, this colossal top-secret area ten storeys deep - known as M42 - was left off all blueprints for the station and its existence was only officially acknowledged by the station owners in the late 1980’s. Accessible via a lift that is almost 100 years old, M42 is still one of the most closely guarded areas. The exact location of M42 is still classified information,’ said Mr Brucker. ‘Its history is one of denial and subterfuge, as you can imagine given its importance not only to New York City today but in the war effort during the 1940’s. very rare photo

It was this significance which led Hitler to concoct a plan to dispatch two spies to take out M42 and in doing so stop the movements of thousands of troops across the Atlantic to Britain in anticipation of D-Day. ‘Powered by the old power station on 23rd Street in Manhattan, M42, known as such because of Grand Central’s 42nd street address, contained 12 rotary AC/DC convertors,’ explained Dan. These facilitated the movement of all passengers from the station and were vital. ‘They also of course helped move all the troops through to New York before boarding the transport ships bound for Europe. ‘However, even though these rotary convertors were impressive pieces of engineering, they had one almost comical weakness. ‘They could be destroyed and stopped from working by throwing a simple bucket of sand into the rotating blades.’ As such M42 was guarded by armed soldiers throughout the Second World War. ‘These guards had two distinct sets of orders,’ said Mr Brucker.

'With their eyes trained on the lift doors they had orders to intern anyone for the duration of the war who may have inadvertently stumbled into the lift and found their way down. 'And more importantly, they had orders to shoot on sight anyone they saw emerge from the lift with a bucket of sand.' In fact, according to Mr Brucker, two German secret agents were dispatched to Grand Central in late 1944 with specific orders to disrupt the American war effort, with M42 top of the list. 'Erich Gimpel and William Colepaugh landed at Bar Harbor, Maine in November 1944, after being dropped off by a German U-Boat in the middle of the night that had traveled for weeks at low speed across the Atlantic,' said Mr Brucker.. 'They were ordered to travel at first to New York City with almost $60,000 (over $650,000 in today's money) in bills on their person. 'Their mission was to infiltrate and report back on American war efforts, especially the Manhattan Project and if the opportunity presented itself to destroy the rotary motors that were in M42.' As it turned out, the pair left a European branded pack of cigarettes on the beach and were sighted coming to shore by a keen eyed dog walker. 'The FBI launched a major manhunt and Gimpel was apprehended in Manhattan after Colepaugh turned himself in.' They had failed in their mission to disrupt the European war effort and 80 per cent of all troop movements across the east of America to Europe.


April 12, 1955: The polio vaccine is declared safe and effective. 

After its clinical identification in the late 18th century, poliomyelitis remained one of the public’s most feared diseases in most industrialized nations until the initiation of a wide-scale effort to vaccinate against the disease in the mid-1900s. In 1894, the first known epidemic of polio to break out in the United States struck a population in Vermont. Over the next few decades, outbreaks of polio reached pandemic proportions in much of the West. Then often referred to ominously as “infantile paralysis”, the spread of polio in industrialized nations was accelerated by the loss of natural immunities to the disease as a result of improved sanitation and sewage disposal. As noted in the report from the original 1894 Vermont outbreak, a dreaded and relatively common outcome of the disease was paralysis of some or all of the extremities. The sinister image of the iron lung, upon which an affected child might become dependent as a result of paralysis of muscles in the chest, was embedded in the public’s conception of the disease. Amid dreams of idyllic American suburban life and the ultimate triumph of modern science over nature, polio, writes David Oshinsky, was “the crack in the fantasy”. 

Efforts toward a vaccine gained traction in the late 1930s. In 1952, the worst outbreak of polio in the nation’s history affected some 58,000 people. Of these, 3,145 died, and 21,000 were left with some degree of paralysis. The same year, Jonas Salk and colleagues developed and tested a polio vaccine on schoolchildren. In 1954, one of the largest and most publicized clinical trials in the nation’s history was underway. The trials involved the injection of the vaccine and placebos in 623,972 American schoolchildren and resulted in an 80-90% success rate in preventing paralytic polio. On April 12, 1955, the results of these trials were announced and the vaccine was declared to be “safe, effective, and potent”. With the development of this viable vaccine, widespread mass vaccination campaigns took place and, for the most part, reduced the impact - and public fear - of polio nationally. Since 1988, worldwide polio cases have decreased by pver 99%; however, the disease still persists in several countries.

PAKISTAN, Rawalpindi : A Pakistani health worker (R) administers the polio vaccine to a child during a vaccination campaign in Rawalpindi on December 9, 2014. Gunmen on December 9 killed a member of a polio vaccination team in Pakistan, as Taliban insurgents claimed the killing of two policemen assigned to protect an immunisation team the day before. AFP PHOTO / Farooq NAEEM