As of Aug. 25, it is official. The World Health Organization African Region has been certified free of the wild poliovirus.
This is great news and has been a long time coming. At this time last year, Nigeria, the last polio-endemic country in Africa, had gone three full years without a case of wild polio. But certification takes longer, to ensure that the virus is completely eliminated in all countries in a region.
The Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) was launched in 1988 when there were still 125 countries across the planet that were polio-endemic. In that year, there were more than 350,000 cases of polio. As of today, there are only two countries remaining that are still polio-endemic: Afghanistan and Pakistan.
While continued vigilance and vaccinations are needed in Africa and in other regions of the world, the focus is now on eradicating polio in those two countries.
As of this week, there have been 37 cases in 2020 caused by the wild poliovirus in Afghanistan and another 65 cases in Pakistan for a total of 102 cases worldwide this year. When compared with the 350,000 global cases in 1988, the progress has been huge.
Each partner in the GPEI brings a set of strengths to the effort to finish the job, working with the national health services in these last two countries. The World Health Organization (WHO), which works with governments around the world on disease prevention, has the expertise and health care specialists on the ground. UNICEF is working in Pakistan and Afghanistan to open health care centers that will provide services beyond polio vaccinations to meet multiple health needs of rural populations that do not have access to many vaccinations and medicines.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have set up high-functioning labs that can be used to test cases of polio. At the same time, these same labs are already fighting to control the spread of the novel coronavirus in both countries, as well as in nations around the world that still use these labs to monitor for poliovirus.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation joined the GPEI in 2007, and has brought their expertise and their network of funding sources to the effort, while Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, has recently joined the effort and ensures funding for the global polio vaccine supply.
Each partner has an important role, including Rotary International, which has been a key partner in the GPEI from the start. Rotarians have raised over $2.1 billion for polio eradication since 1988, including matching funds from the Gates Foundation, which matches every dollar raised by Rotarians 2 to 1, up to $50 million per year.
While Rotarians have been traveling around the world for many years to participate in National Immunization Day (NID) events, even a large group of Rotarians can only vaccinate a fairly small number of children. Their most important role when they take part in a polio eradication campaign is to bear witness to the incredible work being done by Rotarians, national health workers and volunteers across the globe.
When India was struggling to eliminate polio within its borders, thousands of Rotarians traveled to participate in campaigns and then returned home to raise awareness of the effort in their communities. India has been polio-free since 2014.
Dr. Dick Huston of Faribault was given a rare opportunity to see Pakistani Rotarians in action when he visited the cities of Karachi and Hyderabad in November 2019. He was invited by Aziz Memon, Pakistan National PolioPlus Committee Chair.
Dr. Huston was not sure what to expect during his trip to Pakistan. Their hospitality left a lasting impression. He got to see Rotarians at work and came away full of hope that Pakistan has the determination, knowledge, creativity, cultural sensitivity, and passion to finish the job.
The polio eradication efforts in Pakistan and Afghanistan were temporarily paused earlier this year to avoid spreading COVID-19 in house-to-house vaccination campaigns. New protocols have been put in place to allow the vaccinations to continue.
There is a lot of work still to be done, but the needed willpower and resources will be mobilized, inshallah! (God willing!) If you would like to learn more about this effort or make a contribution (to be matched two-to-one by the Gates Foundation), please go to endpolio.org.
Charles Adams Cogan, of Northfield, is PolioPlus team co-leader for Rotary District 5960 and a former Peace Corps volunteer to Togo, West Africa.