Polio (poliomyelitis) is a highly infectious disease mainly affecting children under five. Many of us have never seen someone affected by polio nor ever will – and that’s good news! Thanks to the work of many different organizations, including Rotary International, polio is on the cusp of being eradicated. The list of diseases to have been eradicated is short. Smallpox was declared eradicated in 1980 and Guinea Worm is close. Polio will join this list eventually. Getting to this point has been a long journey but well worth it. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) more than 15 million people are able to walk today who would otherwise have been paralyzed and an estimated 1.5 million childhood deaths have been prevented.
The creation of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) in 1988 was a major step forward. The GPEI is a public private partnership with governments, WHO, the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and Rotary International. Thanks to this global effort, polio is found only in Pakistan and Afghanistan, with fewer than 100 reported cases in 2015. Reaching children who most need vaccination often entails traveling to and working in areas that are isolated or dangerous. This is especially the case in Pakistan where polio vaccination campaigns have been misunderstood and even subverted. Vaccination teams have been deliberately and repeatedly targeted. Despite the danger to themselves, the efforts of community health workers like Saira Nizamuddin to reach unvaccinated children is nothing short of heroic. Thanks to them, it is possible that Pakistan may have no new cases in 2017. If Pakistan has no new cases by 2018, it will then be removed from the shrinking list of endemic countries.
When polio is finally eradicated, the GPEI leaves behind a global network of disease surveillance into which measles (the largest vaccine preventable cause of death for children in Africa) and other diseases can be increasingly integrated. The skills and expertise acquired by trained staff has already been useful in addressing other public health concerns such as avian influenza, ebola, and meningitis.
You may have seen the Rotary signs where celebrities hold two fingers together saying that we are “this close” to eradicating polio. It is true that we are very close. It is also true that there may be setbacks. Even so, this should not deter us from seeing through what we have started and eradicating polio forever. Everyone can play a part by raising awareness and/or funding to support the eradication effort. For every dollar that Rotary International raises for polio, The Gates Foundation is matching two dollars. Supporting UNICEF is another way to support vaccination against polio (and other diseases) for children living in low resource and conflict-affected settings. Take a look at Rotary International’s “End Polio” Facebook Page as well as toolkit and advocacy materials to help get the word out.
No matter how you get involved though, by supporting polio eradication, you are making history.