I joined Rotary’s efforts to eradicate polio more than two decades ago, shortly after meeting a mother in Karachi, Pakistan, who was struggling to bring her 11-year-old son to whose feet they had withered. polio paralysis. He told me that the virus has paralyzed three of his six children – a shocking fact, since the disease is easily preventable with a vaccine.
This encounter brought me to the urgency of reaching zero cases. Back then, wild polio paralyzed more than 1000 children each year in my native Pakistan, and 45 countries were still on track to register cases.
Today, the wild virus is still seen in Pakistan and only in another country – Afghanistan. Five of the world’s six regions are wild without polio. This progress is a testament to the collaboration between health care workers, governments and donors around the world, and to the coordination efforts of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), which Rotary has helped to be founded in 1988.
Getting up to date in our fight against polio has not been easy. The number of cases has fallen in some years, but has increased in others when new obstacles arise.
Now, we are close to eradicating this deadly disease but we are also facing one of our biggest 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 is the case with all health programs, have suffered since the emergence of COVID-19. Vaccination campaigns were just paused for four months last year to protect front-line workers and communities. As a result, tens of millions of children have missed polio vaccination.
This has aggravated the challenges we are already facing. There has been a resurgence of wild polio in Pakistan and Afghanistan in recent years due to insecurity and parents refusing to vaccinate their children against the disease. And there have been several outbreaks of cVDPV, a non-wild form of polio that is harmful to under-immunized communities.
Although these contrasts are disappointing, the GPEI has shown that it can make progress even when the odds are stacked against it. The initiative has already successfully ended polio in many war zones and some of the most difficult geographies on the planet.
He also demonstrated how efforts to plant polio have a broad impact on public health. During the break in polio campaigns, the vast surveillance of GPEI diseases and the front-line workforce – including thousands of Rotary members – were key for response COVID-19 in almost 50 countries. They helped track and trace the virus, improve community-level planning for response, and distribute vital public health messages.
The GPEI has recently focused its energy on three important areas, which has given me confidence that one day it will be able to defeat this disease for good while also supporting – and providing lessons for – other public health initiatives.
First, the GPEI made a promise to increasingly support the provision of essential health services to meet the needs of vulnerable communities.
Many of these communities, particularly in parts of Pakistan, are tired of regular visits from polio vaccines and a few other health professionals, which has negatively affected vaccine intake. While the program has helped in the past to provide other vaccines, medicines and maternal health advice, this will become more integrated into eradication efforts to improve health more widely.
Subsequently, the program has increased its partnerships with governments in polio-affected and high-risk countries and empowered local leaders to support polio vaccination campaigns and engagement with families. To that end, it was heartening to hear the recent commitments of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan to keep treating polio as a public health priority in Pakistan.
And finally, the GPEI is working to expand the use of innovative new tools that can help defeat polio. These include a next-generation oral polio vaccine that could help end cVDPV outbreaks more sustainably, and digital payments for polio workers, which will help improve the efficiency of polio vaccination campaigns and increase to motivation.
All of these tactics are part of the new Polio Eradication Strategy GPEI 2022-26, and give us a lot to hope for. But no matter how strong our plan is, it will only succeed if governments and donors regain the political and financial resources that the GPEI needs to end polio for good. If it doesn’t, polio could resurface in countries where it was first eradicated and again begin to paralyze tens of thousands of children each year – an unimaginable prospect, given how far we’ve come.
When governments support eradication, they are not just working towards an event where no family will have to live in fear that their child will be paralyzed by a preventable disease. They are also supporting a healthy infrastructure that can protect communities from emerging threats to health, as we have seen so powerful with COVID-19.
The pandemic has widened the resources of countries, and some have considered reducing their support for polio. While these are difficult times, we cannot afford to win the fight against COVID-19 by allowing other diseases preventable from reviving vaccination. Resuming efforts to eradicate polio is now in danger of undermining everything we have done in the last three decades.
Rotary has made a promise to end polio for good and it is one we intend to pass on to others as well.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.