Thirty years ago, the world united under a bold promise: a future free of polio.
In the decades since then, organizations from around the world have worked with dedicated governments and health workers to deliver on this promise. In addition to developments such as improved access to clean water, vaccination campaigns, as led by the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, have resulted in an incredible reduction in cases of poliovirus, from 1,000 per day in 1988 to 22 in 2017. If we After smallpox, polio will only be the second human disease to be removed from the face of the earth.
But the path to extinction was longer and harder than expected. While a record number of cases of polio wild pox were recorded last year, we have not completely stopped the disease. One affected child is too many, and this year there were 20 children paralyzed by wild poliovirus.
At the same time, there were outbreaks of vaccine-derived polio that occurs in rare cases when the weakened virus in the oral vaccine mutates into virulence and can easily spread to large, unvaccinated populations. These outbreaks occurred in high-risk countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Papua New Guinea, Somalia and Niger and show that we can not reach enough children.
Regardless of the situation or viral load, these challenges share a common cause: barriers to reach each child. In Afghanistan, for example, nomadic populations, cross-border movements, insecurity and difficult terrain mean that many vulnerable communities remain inaccessible to polio vaccinations.
Although we have access there, the impact has been profound. In Pakistan and Nigeria ̵
Polio contraction is a tragedy for the affected children and families. Each new case is also a lesson for us – and shows where we need to step up our efforts and remember how quickly polio can come back if we are not vigilant.
For every paralyzed child, there are an estimated 200 others who carry the virus without symptoms. Because of this, even if the world sees only a handful of cases, we have to reach millions of children every year to prevent a resurgence of polio. If these vaccination efforts ceased, the consequences would be catastrophic. Within 10 years, polio could be on the threshold of every family and paralyze up to 200,000 children every year.
We understand that administering vaccines is not an easy task. Polio has found refuge in some of the most complex and dynamic environments in the world. But over time, we have learned how, in the face of extreme adversity, we can deliver health services even in areas with little infrastructure.
We proved that in 2016, when the virus reappeared in Nigeria after two years without incident. A critical front in the reaction was Lake Chad, a massive body of water bordering Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and Niger. Health care workers painstakingly recorded the many islands that covered the lake and hiked for hours to reach hundreds of settlements for the first time. Solar powered refrigerators that were brought kept the vaccines cool.
Today, there are still parts of Nigeria where we can not reach children or track the virus properly because of inadequate infrastructure, population movements and insecurity. But although we remain cautious, we have seen another case of poliomyelitis since the 2016 outbreak.
Our partnership has also demonstrated its ability to strategically operate despite uncertainty. Last year in Syria, after the conflict had led to blockages that prevented healthcare workers from reaching cities, we responded quickly and effectively to an outbreak of vaccine-derived polio. We vaccinated fleeing children in transit centers and camps and worked with local authorities to quickly deliver vaccines in security windows – strategies that we use in conflict zones around the world. As a result, Syria has undergone a year without paralyzed child.
We have also worked globally to strengthen local health systems and respond to community needs after polio vaccination. In Karachi, for example, Rotary International is working with local partners to install water filtration systems in vulnerable communities. Similar projects – including the delivery of mosquito nets, dietary supplements and measles, meningitis and tetanus vaccines – are ongoing every day, wherever we fight polio. And this infrastructure will not disappear with the last poliovirus, but can be used to combat other diseases and accelerate progress towards ambitious global goals such as universal health care long after polio eradication has been eradicated.
These examples illustrate the tenacity of this coalition, which has come so far, thanks to dedicated vaccinators, donors and advocates around the world, since the promise in 1988 to rid the world of polio. We are so close to keeping that promise. We have seen how easily the virus can repress. but we are more committed than ever.
A livestream for Rotary's World Polio Day Event will be held on October 24th at www.endpolio.org.