I joined Rotary’s efforts to eradicate polio over twenty years ago, shortly after meeting a mother in Karachi, Pakistan, who was struggling to carry her 11-year-old son whose legs were straining. were withered from the polio paralysis. She told me that the virus crippled three of her six children – a shocking fact given that the disease is easily preventable with a vaccine.
This meeting underlined to me the urgency of reaching zero cases. Back then, wild polio paralyzed over 1,000 children every year in my native Pakistan, and 45 countries still had cases.
Today, the wild virus is still present in Pakistan and only one other country, Afghanistan. Five of the six regions of the world are free from wild polio. These advances are a testament to the collaboration between health workers, governments and donors around the world, and the coordination efforts of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPI), which Rotary helped found in 1988.
Getting this far in our fight against polio has not been easy. The number of cases has declined in some years, but has increased in others as new barriers have arisen.
Today we are on the verge of eradicating this deadly disease, but we also face one of our greatest challenges to date. It is therefore vital that the GPEI has the support of the global community to cross the finish line.
Efforts to eradicate polio, as with any health program, have suffered since the emergence of COVID-19. Vaccination campaigns were rightly suspended for four months last year to protect frontline workers and communities. As a result, tens of millions of children have not been vaccinated against polio.
This compounded the challenges we were already facing. There has been a resurgence of wild polio in Pakistan and Afghanistan in recent years due to insecurity and the unwillingness of parents to immunize their children against the disease. And there have been several outbreaks of cVDPV, a non-wild form of polio that is harmful to under-immune communities.
While these setbacks are disappointing, the GPEI have shown that they can progress even when the odds are stacked against them. The initiative has already successfully ended polio in several war zones and in some of the most difficult geographies on the planet.
He also showed how efforts to stop polio have a broad impact on public health. During the break in polio campaigns, the GPEI’s extensive disease surveillance and frontline staff – including thousands of Rotary members – were key to the response to COVID-19 in nearly 50 countries. They have helped track and trace the virus, improve response planning at the community level, and disseminate vital public health messages.
The GPEI has recently focused its energy on three important areas, which has given me confidence that it will one day be able to overcome this disease for good while supporting – and providing lessons for – other community initiatives. public health.
First, the GPEI pledged to increasingly support the delivery of essential health services to meet the needs of vulnerable communities.
Many of these communities, especially in parts of Pakistan, grew weary of regular visits from polio vaccinators and a few other health professionals, which had a negative impact on immunization. While the program has in the past helped provide other vaccines, drugs and maternal health counseling, this will become more integrated with eradication efforts to improve health more broadly.
Second, the program strengthened partnerships with governments in polio-affected and high-risk countries and empowered local leaders to support polio immunization campaigns and engagement with families. To that end, it was heartwarming to hear recent pledges from Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan to continue to view polio as a public health priority in Pakistan.
Finally, the GPEI is working to expand the use of innovative new tools that can help us beat polio. These include a next-generation oral polio vaccine that could help end cVDPV epidemics more sustainably, and digital payments for polio agents, which help improve the effectiveness of vaccination campaigns against polio and boost motivation.
All of these tactics are part of the news GPEI polio eradication strategy 2022-2026, and they give us a lot of hope. But no matter how strong our plan is, it will only succeed if governments and donors re-commit the political and financial resources the GPEI needs to end polio for good. If they don’t, polio could reappear in countries where it was previously eliminated and start paralyzing tens of thousands of children again each year – an unimaginable prospect, given how far we’ve come.
When governments support eradication, they are not just working towards a future where no family has to live in fear that their child will be crippled by a preventable disease. They also support an entire infrastructure that can protect communities from emerging health threats, as we’ve seen so powerfully with COVID-19.
The pandemic has strained countries’ resources, and some are considering cutting support for polio. Although times are tough, we cannot afford to win the fight against COVID-19 by allowing other vaccine-preventable diseases to reappear. Reversing efforts to eradicate polio now risks undoing all that we have achieved over the past three decades.
Rotary has made a promise to end polio for good and that is a promise we intend to keep. Others must too.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.