On Aug. 21, we turned on our computers to learn of great news from Africa. Nigeria, the last country on that continent to report cases of the wild poliovirus, had not reported a case in three years.
This means that the entire African region could be certified as free of the wild poliovirus as soon as mid-2020.
The news was especially gratifying because Nigeria came close to this milestone three years ago, before four cases of polio were uncovered in a region of northeastern Nigeria where the Boko Haram insurgency had denied access to vaccinators. We wrote at the time (“Polio nearly eradicated worldwide — nearly,” Sept. 1, 2016) to outline all that had been achieved across the globe by the partners in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), launched in 1988 by the World Health Organization, UNICEF, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Rotary International. About 12 years ago, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation joined the GPEI and brought its resources, knowledge, and connections to the polio eradication effort.
In the year GPEI was launched, 1988, there were more than 350,000 cases of polio in 125 countries, compared with around 66 cases so far in 2019. Now, once the success of Nigeria has been carefully confirmed, there will be only two nations in the world that remain polio-endemic: Pakistan and Afghanistan.
As the number of polio-endemic countries has declined, there have been challenges to finishing the job, including misinformation and even “fake news” about vaccines that have caused mistrust in key countries. At one point, some regions of India were refusing the vaccine because of reports that the vaccines were tainted. The government of India and its Rotary members took a hard look at their outreach and realized they needed to find trusted members in each community to work with them to provide information and get communities on board. India was officially certified polio-free in 2014.
Global efforts in health care do not operate in a vacuum. Pakistan and Afghanistan have made huge progress in recent years, but as conflicts flare on both sides of the border, refugees are displaced and it has been difficult to reach some children. Some families still refuse to vaccinate children, often because of misinformation. The key is to win the battle for the hearts and minds of parents.
We all hope and pray that Nigeria, and thus Africa, will soon be declared wild poliovirus-free. This will not be the end of the global eradication campaign, but it will be an important marker. Only one disease, smallpox, has ever been eradicated.
The time has come for all parties to unite to protect their children. Nigeria’s success also shines a bright light during a troubled time. Thirty years ago, the United States was the leader in global vaccination and our children are safer because of that success. But today the U.S. is at risk of losing its measles elimination status.
Over a million people will have converged on the Twin Cities for the Minnesota State Fair by the time it’s over. They haven’t been particularly worried about contagious diseases, and many younger Minnesotans will not remember that the State Fair was closed down during the polio epidemic of 1946. The hard-won success of Nigeria to eliminate polio within its borders is a reminder to us all of the importance of maintaining high vaccination rates to protect our children.
This year, Rotarians from Minnesota and Iowa are planning to “blitz” the State Fair and staff an informational table. Most will be wearing T-shirts with the distinctive Rotary cogwheel. Rotary is nondenominational, nonpolitical and a perfect venue for people who do not agree on many issues to sit down and have a polite, constructive conversation about the issues that divide our nation and our world.
If you have a chance, stop by to say hello and let them know that you support their efforts to eradicate polio. For more information on Rotary’s role in polio eradication and to support the cause, please see www.rotary.org/endpolionow.
Charles Adams Cogan, of Northfield, is PolioPlus Team Lead for Rotary District 5960. Tim Mulcrone, of Prior Lake, is PolioPlus Team Lead for Rotary District 5950.