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McConnell Gets Personal Discussing Polio

Majority leader makes argument for disease eradication programs

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell discussed his own history with battling polio, as well as the value of U.S. polio eradication efforts. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell discussed his own history with battling polio, as well as the value of U.S. polio eradication efforts. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s main fight for the next few months will be to get President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee out of the Senate. But the same morning that the effort to confirm Brett Kavanaugh truly kicked off, the Kentucky Republican took time to discuss a more personal battle: his childhood struggle with polio.

Speaking at a conference on polio eradication at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, McConnell affirmed United States financial support for the effort to vaccinate children and track the few remaining cases worldwide.

McConnell’s diagnosis at age 2 occurred more than 10 years before a vaccine was even available. His symptoms included paralysis in part of his left leg, and at that time, the best his family could hope for was treatment through rehabilitation. He made periodic visits to Warm Springs, Georgia, home to a polio rehabilitation institute known for also treating President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

McConnell wasn’t an inpatient, but he said they taught his mother a physical therapy regime that she was to perform on him four times a day. But there was a catch, which McConnell suggested was a mind-boggling one for anyone who has ever raised a 2-year-old.

Doctors told his mother, “We don’t want him to try to walk,” McConnell said. They were worried that a fall could harm him further and put him in a brace for life.

“So my mother, like a drill sergeant, literally watched me every waking moment for two years,” McConnell said. “After two years, my first memory in life was our last visit to Warm Springs, where the nurse told my mother, ‘I think he’s going to be OK.’”

McConnell suggested that his experience has informed his view of the value of U.S. foreign assistance, particularly the money spent on the polio eradication effort. When the effort began in the 1980s, there were still more than 350,000 cases worldwide.

So far this year, there have been only 11 known cases of wild poliovirus, all in Pakistan and Afghanistan, according to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. Nigeria, another country that is still being monitored, hasn’t had a known case since 2016. 

The World Health Organization recently declared a new polio outbreak in Papua New Guinea, but this one was derived from a vaccine itself. According to the WHO, in very rare instances, especially in places where sanitation is lacking, the weakened form of the virus that is used in one form of the vaccine can be spread to other people.

(The polio vaccine used in the United States is an inactivated vaccine, meaning that it uses a “dead” version of the virus that can’t spread from person to person.)

With worldwide eradication in sight, the United States has steadily been increasing its financial support for the effort. In fiscal 2012, between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Agency for International Development, Congress provided around $147 million for polio eradication. The amount has increased over time, reaching $235 million in fiscal 2018. For fiscal 2019, polio eradication efforts are poised to get the same amount.

McConnell pushed back on critics of spending of taxpayer dollars overseas, saying it was programs like these that proved the relatively small investment was “more bang for the buck” than even the military.

“I think it’s under-appreciated outside the public health community just how much hard work and innovation has to continue after a disease has dropped off the front pages,” McConnell said, warning that without continued support, “progress could erode rapidly.”

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