A child in Karachi receiving the polio vaccine. @WHO
A child in Karachi receiving the polio vaccine. @WHO

There is unprecedented support and commitment to ending polio in Pakistan by 2023, and with the current momentum maintained, the country will be able to interrupt transmission in the coming year, a high-level global delegation on polio concluded at the end of its visit to the country on Thursday.

The delegation was led by Chair of the Polio Oversight Board (POB) Dr Chris Elias, WHO Regional Director Dr Ahmed Al-Mandhari and UNICEF Regional Director George Laryea-Adjei.

“The last steps to ending polio are the toughest but eradication is within reach thanks to the hard work happening in Pakistan,” Dr Elias said.

“During my three-day visit, I was again impressed by the resolve of the government and community, especially frontline workers, to ensure polio is gone forever,” he added. “Reaching every child during the upcoming polio campaigns and strengthening the routine immunization system are now critical to success.”

The Polio Oversight Board is the highest decision-making body of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. This is the delegation’s second visit together to Pakistan this year. The earlier visit was in May following the detection of a polio case in Pakistan after nearly 15 months. The recent visit comes following the destruction of several health facilities and mass displacement due to catastrophic floods, which increased the risk of polio transmission.

WHO Regional Director Dr Ahmed Al-Mandhari reaffirmed that Pakistan is in the “final stretch” of the road to eradication.

“The progress this year has well-positioned the country to end all poliovirus transmission in 2023. However, ensuring that we reach our goal will require sustained political and administrative commitment during 2023, a year of elections and political transition,” he said. “Under our regional vision of health for all by all, we all have a role to play in ending polio through our collective solidarity and action.”

UNICEF Regional Director for South Asia George Laryea-Adjei said that Pakistan’s success in containing the spread of polio through joint efforts by the government, donors, frontline health workers and partners is truly commendable.

 “The recent flooding has exacerbated health risks for millions of children, especially those living in districts historically at the highest risk for polio, so we must redouble efforts to engage parents and caregivers to protect these children,” he said. “The end of polio is near, and we must now go the last mile to ensure every child is protected against this debilitating disease.”

During the visit, the delegation met the prime minister, federal health minister, Pakistan Army’s engineer-in-chief and the heads of provincial governments of Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh, and reiterated support to help Pakistan end poliovirus transmission by 2023.

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As Pakistan continues to struggle from the effects of the devastating floods affecting parts of the country, polio staff on the ground continue to assist emergency relief efforts.

In flood-affected districts, the polio effort is supporting establishment of critical health camps, to provide basic clinical services, particularly ensuring treatment of water-borne and vector-borne diseases, and distributing water purification tablets.  All routine immunization antigens are also provided to target children and pregnant women.  Staff are actively conducting surveillance for communicable diseases, identifying nutrition needs of displaced populations, and collecting and analysing life-saving data to help target response strategies.  Polio programmes around the world have a long history of supporting broader public health and humanitarian emergencies, as was the situation earlier this year in Afghanistan, following the devasting earthquake there.

At the same time, the polio programme is adapting its operations, to ensure polio eradication efforts can continue unabated, even amid the tragedy.  The programme is at a critical juncture – intensive response is ongoing to stop this year’s outbreak in southern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.  Virus linked to this outbreak was this month detected in an environmental sample from Karachi, in the south of the country.  At the same time, the high transmission season for polio transmission is now starting and this transmission risks being particularly intense given the floods.

But despite these challenges, polio staff are working double-time:  adapting polio approaches, while supporting life-saving flood relief efforts.

“I have been fortunate enough to be present when a number of countries successfully eradicated polio,” commented Dr Hamid Jafari, Director for Polio Eradication at the World Health Organization’s Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean.  “Rarely have I seen such commitment and dedication than I have seen in Pakistan – from national political leaders, to health workers, right to the mother and father on the ground.  To all who are involved, all I can say is:  Thank you!  You are making a huge difference to people’s lives, which goes far beyond the effort to eradicate polio.”

While detection of virus in Karachi is not unexpected, given the large-scale and frequent population movements between Karachi and the rest of the country, in particular Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. urgent efforts are underway, coordinated by the national and provincial Emergency Operations Centres (NEOC and PEOC), to continue surveillance efforts in greater Karachi and further boost immunity levels through health camps, to prevent polio from establishing a foothold in Pakistan’s largest city which has historically been a major polio reservoir.

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Despite the extraordinary climatic conditions and consequent operational challenges aggravated by the collapse of infrastructure, the programme continued with the August polio campaign – including across Karachi – and re-adjusted the schedule in all accessible areas. While the immunization campaign could not be conducted in Balochistan and parts of Sindh, the effort managed to reach nearly 32 million children in the country, with health workers wading through deep water to reach children with the life-saving vaccine.

At the same time, the programme has undertaken contingency planning to resume intensified vaccination activities in southern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to stop the outbreak, as soon as the situation allows. The programme continues to innovate, adapt, and find opportunities to build children’s immunity through vaccination at health camps, at transit points, in settlements for displaced persons.

And, of course, national and subnational authorities are coordinating activities with neighbouring Afghanistan, particularly in border regions, given that both countries represent a single epidemiological block.  Confirmation this month of Afghanistan’s second case this year, from Kunar province, confirms the risk any residual transmission on either side of the border continues to pose to children across this block.

Kunar, along with the rest of the country’s Eastern Region, is part of one of three, critical cross-border epidemiological corridors with Pakistan, the northern corridor specifically comprising of Eastern Region and central Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan.  Case response is currently being planned in the immediate area and the broader corridor.  The other two cross-border epidemiological corridors are the southern corridor, comprising Quetta Block of Pakistan and Southern Region, Afghanistan; and, the central corridor, comprising southern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and South-East Region in Afghanistan.

Districts along the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan in the three epidemiological corridors are at high-risk for poliovirus transmission, given the high proportion of zero-dose children and inconsistent quality of polio vaccination campaigns in some areas.

The Pakistan and Afghanistan polio programmes continue to coordinate on surveillance and vaccination activities through the Global Polio Eradication Initiative Support Hub, based in Amman, Jordan.

A polio worker administers the oral polio vaccine to a child in Karachi. Credit: @SalmanMahar

Polio is one of the world’s most devastating diseases. It mainly affects children under five and in one in 200 cases it results in lifelong paralysis. Amazing progress has been made in fighting polio globally: according to UNICEF, there were a reported 20,000 children paralysed by polio in Pakistan in 1994. By 2021, new paralysis cases had dropped to just one child. However, as long as just one child remains infected, all children are at risk.

Identifying and reaching unvaccinated children has been a challenge, but big data startups like Zenysis, in partnership with Pakistan government partners, are making inroads.

Vaccination data is only useful if it’s accurate

Abid Hasan is the project manager for Zenysis – a Gavi INFUSE pacesetter since 2017 – in Pakistan, and he explains the barriers to a more effective vaccination programme in the country:

“Data is like people, in that if data sets don’t talk to each other then they won’t work well. Zenysis gets data and data sets talking.”

Community health workers employed through Pakistan’s Polio Eradication Programme and the Expanded Programme of Immunisation go door to door to collect vaccination data, sometimes using datasheets, sometimes paper, sometimes recording data through WhatsApp. It can be difficult to track families with no formal address, or mobile communities with no fixed address. With 14 million children requiring a polio vaccination every two months, recording accurate data is a mammoth task.

The resulting data can be imperfect, with duplication a particular challenge. This is where Zenysis’s platform comes in. Zenysis software integrates, de-deplicates and harmonises more than 20 siloed datasets, including polio data, immunisation registries and population data.

Combined, the data can be used far more effectively for analysis and, importantly, action on the ground. The result? A new and improved vaccination plan, personalised for each vaccinator’s district – known as a microplan.

A Community Health Worker goes door to door during the August polio campaign to give children the oral polio vaccine. She finds a newborn zero-dose child and records that data into her register. Credit: @SalmanMahar
A Community Health Worker goes door to door during the August polio campaign to give children the oral polio vaccine. She finds a newborn zero-dose child and records that data into her register.
Credit: @SalmanMahar

Microplans help health workers target zero-dose children

The enhanced microplans provide health workers with granular information on each child in a region, including their vaccination status, age and address. This information can be used to identify individual children and highlight neighbourhoods where there are clusters of unvaccinated (zero-dose) children. This in turn means better use of time and energy, and better outcomes for communities.

The effect, explains Hasan, is seen in three key areas. “Firstly, the newmicroplans give community health workers the real picture. Second, frontline workers now have a plan to follow and are no longer using broad or inflated data that is hard to actionize. Third, this approach is measurable – when you reach a target, that goes into the system. With accurate data, you can really see the impact.”

Health workers on the ground have seen the difference. Sadaf, a community health worker for Polio, in Karachi, says: “Before the microplans the vaccinators were given a long list of children with duplicate entries in them, and they were extremely difficult to track. After receiving these microplans we can easily decide where to set up our outreach sites and mobilise children to bring them there for vaccination in a systematic manner.”

The impact has been impressive. Since January 2022, the Expanded Programme on Immunisation in the Sindh region has used the Zenysis platform to identify over 28,500 true zero-dose children in the region and vaccinate 12,724 of them with the aid of microplans. In March to June of this year, 3,854 zero-dose children were vaccinated with the help of the new microplans in the regions where they have been implemented.

Community Health Workers using Zenysis provided microplans to identify houses with zero-dose children in high risk areas of Karachi. Credit: @SalmanMahar
Community Health Workers using Zenysis provided microplans to identify houses with zero-dose children in high risk areas of Karachi.
Credit: @SalmanMahar

Gavi support has been vital in creating goals and driving change

Zenysis was part of Gavi’s INFUSE programme, which connects high-impact innovations with the countries that need them most. Hasan explains that for countries like Pakistan, the investment from Gavi is vital to enhance healthcare budgets, but also to help provide momentum and set goals for vaccination programmes.

Looking ahead, Zenysis is collaborating closely with government partners to expand the platform and vaccination approach throughout Sindh province, tackle other vaccine-preventable diseases, and improve the government’s technical platform management capacity.

As Hasan says, “Not everyone is a data expert – but if you can go on a platform, go into a dashboard, and see all your data into one workspace then you can reach a zero-dose child and their family, and get them vaccinated.”

And with each child vaccinated, we get a step closer to a world where infection by wild poliovirus is a thing of the past.

Reposted with permission from gavi.org

Nomina Akhtar © WHO/Muhammad Shoaib
Nomina Akhtar © WHO/Muhammad Shoaib

In 2021, when the news of cancer hit, Nomina Akhtar felt her world collapsing. It was discovered too late. By the time she knew, it was already stage-3 breast cancer.

Since 2015, Akhtar has been part of Pakistan’s polio programme as a community health worker. During these six years, she has found friends and well-wishers among her team members who have given her the support to carry on.

Akhtar, 43 and a mother of three continues to work for polio eradication as she undergoes treatment for cancer. “I gathered my courage and promised that I will fight till the end and live for my children. All my family, colleagues and seniors were with me whenever I needed support. That gave me courage and made me believe that I could, in fact, beat cancer.”

Based in Peshawar, Nomina’s husband and her three children, aged six, seven and 18, rely solely on her income. The lockdowns due to the pandemic caused her husband, a motorcycle mechanic, to close down his shop that has yet to reopen.

A life with cancer has been both physically and emotionally exhausting. She is undergoing both radiation and chemotherapy in Peshawar. This means a commute of almost 20 kilometers after a whole day of work.

“When I have to go for chemotherapy after work, it becomes very draining. I have to take public transport and wait at the hospital for hours. There are times when I have to return without treatment because either the machine is faulty or something else comes up. This treatment regime along with the medicine will continue for at least five years. It’s excruciatingly painful,” she says.

Polio programme: a great source of strength for Akhtar

“My colleagues are like my extended family, and I am like a sister to them. When I found out about my cancer, they wept with me. They have stood by my children and myself every step of the way.”

The supervisor of her area, Uzma Mansoor, says that when they first heard the news, they were devastated. “But it’s great to see that she has not lost hope and is fighting the disease like a champion,” she said.

The community she works in has also been incredibly supportive. “Some of the people in my work area came to know about my illness and they appreciated the fact that despite fighting cancer, I come to their doorstep during every polio campaign. Irrespective of extreme temperatures and illness, I am there to vaccinate their children and protect them from this life-threatening disease. Their support has increased manifold after this.”

Sahibullah, the Union Council Polio Officer of her area, says not only does Nomina continue to vaccinate children, but she is a role model for all other polio workers.

“It was God’s will, and we will face it with courage,” says her husband Aurangzeb Akhtar. “Despite being ill, Nomina is the one who keeps us going. She is working and earning for our family as well as motivating us to not lose hope. My children and I are so proud of her. Inshallah she will get well very soon.”

Nomina has strong conviction. She is fighting cancer and polio simultaneously, and is determined that she will defeat both very soon. “At least cancer has treatment,” she says. “Polio is incurable and the sooner we end this disease forever, the better.”

Development and Health Ministers of the G7 countries met in Berlin, Germany, last week to hold urgent joint consultations on “supporting vaccine equity and pandemic preparedness in developing countries”.  The joint group highlighted the need to accelerate equitable and sustainable access to vaccines everywhere, and to strengthen pandemic preparedness and response in low- and middle-income countries.  At the same time, however, the meeting cautioned against letting global crises interfere with other development and public health priorities and urged continued support for existing efforts, including global polio eradication.

The global effort to eradicate polio is a clear and concrete example of the value of working in close integration with other development and public health efforts, and contribute to global pandemic preparedness and response.  Polio staff continue to contribute to the COVID-19 pandemic response and immunization recovery efforts, together with the introduction and roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines. 

In April 2022, GPEI partners, led by WHO Director-General, launched the ‘Investment Case for Polio Eradication’, the sister document to the Polio Eradication Strategy 2022-2026, which lays out the economic and humanitarian rationale for investing in a polio-free world, as well as the broader benefits of polio eradication.

In October 2022, Germany will generously co-host a global pledging moment, giving the international development community the opportunity to publicly re-commit to this effort, including to support a stronger and sustainably-funded WHO, so that the organization can maintain its capacity to support countries in achieving and sustaining polio eradication, and continue to benefit broader public health efforts, including support for pandemic preparedness and response.

In this two-part video series, we chat with Dr Ananda Bandyopadhyay, Deputy Director of Polio Technology, Research & Analytics, BMGF, about the new tool in GPEI’s kit to combat cVDPV2: novel oral polio vaccine type 2 (nOPV2).

 

GENEVA, 26 April 2022

Today, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) announced that it is seeking new commitments to fund its 2022-2026 Strategy at a virtual event to launch its investment case. The strategy, if fully funded, will see the vaccination of 370 million children annually for the next five years and the continuation of global surveillance activities for polio and other diseases in 50 countries.

During the virtual launch, the Government of Germany, which holds the G7 presidency in 2022, announced that the country will co-host the pledging moment for the GPEI Strategy during the 2022 World Health Summit in October.

“A strong and fully funded polio programme will benefit health systems around the world. That is why it is so crucial that all stakeholders now commit to ensuring that the new eradication strategy can be implemented in full,” said Niels Annen, Parliamentary State Secretary to the Federal Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development, Germany. “The polio pledging moment at the World Health Summit this October is a critical opportunity for donors and partners to reiterate their support for a polio-free world. We can only succeed if we make polio eradication our shared priority.”

Wild poliovirus cases are at a historic low and the disease is endemic in just Pakistan and Afghanistan, presenting a unique opportunity to interrupt transmission. However, recent developments, due in part to impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, underscore the fragility of this progress. In February 2022, Malawi confirmed its first case of wild polio in three decades and the first on the African continent since 2016, linked to virus originating in Pakistan, and in April 2022 Pakistan recorded its first wild polio case since January 2021. Meanwhile, outbreaks of cVDPV, variants of the poliovirus that can emerge in under-immunized communities, were recently detected in Israel and Ukraine and circulate in several countries in Africa and Asia.

The investment case outlines new modelling that shows achieving eradication could save an estimated US $33.1 billion this century, compared to the price of controlling polio outbreaks. At the launch event, GPEI leaders and polio-affected countries urged renewed political and financial support to end polio and protect children and future generations from the paralysis it causes.

“Despite enormous progress, polio still paralyses far too many children around the world – and even one child is too many,” said UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell.  “We simply cannot allow another child to suffer from this devastating disease – not when we know how to prevent it. Not when we are so close. We must do whatever it takes to finish the fight – and achieve a polio-free world for every child.”

“The re-emergence of polio in Malawi after three decades was a tragic reminder that until polio is wiped off the face of the earth, it can spread globally and harm children anywhere. I urge all countries to unite behind the Global Polio Eradication Initiative and ensure it has the support and resources it needs to end polio for everyone everywhere,” said Hon. Khumbize Kandodo Chiponda MP, Minister of Health, Malawi.

The new eradication strategy centres on integrating polio activities with other essential health programs in affected countries, better reaching children in the highest risk communities who have never been vaccinated, andstrengthening engagement with local leaders and influencers to build trust and vaccine acceptance.

“The children of Pakistan and Afghanistan deserve to live a life free of an incurable, paralyzing disease. With continued global support, we can make polio a disease of the past,” said Dr Shahzad Baig, National Coordinator, Pakistan Polio Eradication Programme. “The polio programme is also working to increase overall health equity in the highest-risk communities by addressing area needs holistically, including by strengthening routine immunization, improving health facilities, and organizing health camps.”

The investment case outlines how support for eradication efforts will enable essential health services in under-served communities and strengthen the world’s defences against future health threats.

Since 2020, GPEI infrastructure and staff have provided critical support to governments as they respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, including by promoting COVID-safe practices, leveraging polio surveillance and lab networks to detect the virus, and assisting COVID-19 vaccination efforts through health worker trainings, community mobilization, data management and other activities.

“The global effort to consign polio to the history books will not only help to spare future generations from this devastating disease, but serve to strengthen health systems and health security,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General.

Additional quotes from the GPEI Investment Case:

“We have the knowledge and tools to wipe polio off the face of the earth. GPEI needs the resources to take us the last mile to eradicating this awful disease. Investing in GPEI will also help us detect and respond to other health emergencies. We can’t waver now. Let’s all take this opportunity to fully support GPEI, and create a world in which no child is paralyzed by polio ever again,” said Bill Gates, Co-chair, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

“An investment in polio eradication goes further than fighting one disease. It is the ultimate investment in both equity and sustainability – it is for everyone and forever. An important component of GPEI’s Strategy focuses on integrating the planning and coordination of polio activities and essential health services to reach zero-dose children who have never been immunized with routine vaccines, therefore contributing to the goals of the Immunization Agenda 2030.” said Seth Berkley, Chief Executive Officer, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.

“Twenty million people are walking today because of polio vaccination, and we have learned, improved and innovated along the way. We are stronger and more resilient as we enter the last lap of this marathon to protect all future generations of the world’s children from polio. Please join us; with our will and our collective resources, we can seize the unprecedented opportunity to cross the finish line that lies before us,” said Mike McGovern, Chair, International PolioPlus Committee, Rotary International.

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Media contacts:

Oliver Rosenbauer
Communications Officer, World Health Organization
Email: rosenbauero@who.int
Tel: +41 79 500 6536

Ben Winkel
Communications Director, Global Health Strategies
Email: bwinkel@globalhealthstrategies.com
Tel: +1 323 382 2290

Sabrina Sidhu
UNICEF New York
Email: ssidhu@unicef.org
Tel: +19174761537

April 2022 – Convening this month in Geneva, Switzerland, the Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on immunization (SAGE), the global advisory body to the World Health Organization (WHO) on all things immunization, urged concerted action to finish wild polioviruses once and for all.

The group, reviewing the global wild poliovirus epidemiology, highlighted the unique opportunity, given current record low levels of this strain. At the same time, it noted the continuing risks, highlighted in particular by detection of wild poliovirus in Malawi in February, linked to wild poliovirus originating in Pakistan.

On circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus (cVDPV) outbreaks, SAGE expressed concern at continuing transmission, in particular in Nigeria which now accounts for close to 90% of all global cVDPV type 2 cases, as well as the situation in Ukraine, and its disruption to health services, urging for strengthening of immunization and surveillance across Europe.  It also noted the recent detection of cVDPV type 3 in Israel in children, and in environmental samples in occupied Palestinian territories, and urged high-quality vaccination activities and strengthened surveillance.

Preparing for the post-certification era, the group underscored the importance of global cessation of all live, attenuated oral polio vaccine (OPV) use from routine immunization, planned one year after global certification of wild poliovirus eradication.  To ensure appropriate planning, coordination and implementation, the group endorsed the establishment of an ‘OPV Cessation Team’, to consist of wider-than-GPEI stakeholder participation and ensure leadership on all aspects of OPV cessation.

SAGE will continue to review available evidence and best practices on a broad range of GPEI-related programmatic interventions, including as relevant the increasing role of inactivated polio vaccine (IPV), including in outbreak response and effects of novel oral polio vaccine type 2 (nOPV2), as part of global efforts to secure a lasting world free of all forms of poliovirus.

This International Women’s Day, we get to meet some of the women leading the polio eradication efforts in Pakistan.

Cairo, 10 February 2022 – The fourth meeting of the Regional Subcommittee on Polio Eradication and Outbreaks was convened on Wednesday 9 February, by WHO’s Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean Dr Ahmed Al-Mandhari. The meeting was attended by health ministers or their representatives from Djibouti, Egypt, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

The Subcommittee declared the ongoing circulation of any strain of poliovirus in the Region to be a regional public health emergency and called on all authorities to enable uninterrupted access to the youngest and most vulnerable children through the resumption of house-to-house vaccination campaigns. It issued statements on wild poliovirus circulation in Afghanistan and Pakistan and on the circulation of vaccine-derived poliovirus strains in Yemen, where limits on house-to-house vaccination are preventing access to the most vulnerable children.

The spread of polio in the Eastern Mediterranean Region is a pressing emergency and it remains a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) under the International Health Regulations (IHR 2005).

Members noted a sharp decrease in cases of wild poliovirus in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2021 but warned against complacency.

“Wild poliovirus transmission is at a historic low in the endemic countries of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The progress is remarkable, but it is fragile. The opportunity to end polio is knocking at our door, and we must seize it,” said Dr Al-Mandhari.

Speaking to the progress made in the last year, the Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Health, Dr Faisal Sultan, assured members that the programme in Pakistan was leaving no stone unturned in the pursuit of zero polio transmission.

“We have intensified efforts in the hardest districts and core reservoirs and we are closely monitoring transmission across the border in coordination with Afghanistan, taking measures to respond to outbreaks if they occur and making every effort to ensure that the virus doesn’t spill over in either direction. To boost the confidence of marginalized communities, we are also providing essential services and vaccination of other antigens and diseases,” he said.

Outbreaks of circulating vaccine-derived polioviruses type 1 (cVDPV1) and type 2 (cVDPV2) continued to emerge and spread in the Region in 2021. As of February 2022, Afghanistan, Djibouti, Egypt, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen are responding to transmission of vaccine-derived polioviruses.

“The increasing outbreaks of circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus type 2 in the Eastern Mediterranean Region and neighbouring countries of Africa are deeply concerning and must be stopped rapidly. To do so, we need to ensure that we are creating an enabling environment for health workers to reach children with those two drops of polio vaccine,” said newly nominated co-chair H.E. Dr Hanan Mohamed Al Kuwari, Minister of Public Health of Qatar.

During the meeting, Djibouti’s Public Health Minister, Dr Ahmed Robleh Abdilleh, shared plans for vaccination campaigns and increased surveillance in response to the transmission of cVDPV2, recently detected through the newly launched environmental sampling programme.

Reflecting on the work of the Subcommittee, co-chair and Minister of Health and Prevention of the United Arab Emirates H.E. Abdul Rahman Mohammed Al Owais urged members to sustain the commitment seen in in 2021.

“We have together advocated for an increase in domestic funds, we have driven collaborative public health action in our own countries, and collectively pushed for a regional response to address the regional public health emergency of the poliovirus. But these things alone will not end transmission,” he said.

Dr Al-Mandhari expressed appreciation for Egypt’s role as the first country in the Region to roll out a nationwide vaccination campaign using the novel poliovirus vaccine, and Chris Elias, Chair of the Polio Oversight Board, praised the remarkable progress made in polio eradication in Pakistan with support of the United Arab Emirate’s Pakistan Assistance Programme.

“This regional solidarity and commitment we have seen, through this Subcommittee, is something I am proud of. It is this commitment to the end goal that will help push us over the last mile,” said Dr Hamid Jafari, director of the regional polio programme and co-facilitator of the Regional Subcommittee.

Dr. Nida vaccinating a young boy. © Nida Ali

Dr Nida Ali joined the Polio Eradication Programme in her native Pakistan in 2017. A graduate of the medical faculty at Hamdard University in Karachi, she reflects on her time with the programme, the role of women and the eradication of polio in one of the last countries where it remains endemic.

I worked for the polio programme in Pakistan for four years and 10 months. It wasn’t easy – but then, what is? I look back at those long years and cry at the times when I laughed and laugh at the times when I cried. The programme gave me lot: exposure, experience, learning opportunities, knowledge, skills, and excellent colleagues from whom I learned a lot. But the ultimate gain was, of course, the children in my own country, including my son, who took polio drops in every polio immunization campaign.

I joined the programme in 2017, as Polio Emergency Response Officer in the provincial office in Punjab.  I’m originally from Rawalpindi and before joining the programme, I worked on a government-led Reproductive Health programme which sparked my interest in public health.

I’d read about polio as part of my paediatrics study at medical school but I didn’t see a case of polio until I joined the programme.  It was WPV (Wild Poliovirus Type 1) and it was in Punjab, a very small child who wasn’t even a year old. The second case I saw was a case I investigated when I was working as a Polio Eradication Officer in Islamabad. All the signs were there – the child lived in a very densely populated household where the hygiene conditions weren’t good, in a part of town where a lot of travellers were coming and going. He’d also been what we call a ‘refusal’, meaning that his caregivers had refused to allow him to be vaccinated. I examined the child and it was a classic case of Acute Flaccid Paralysis, or AFP, one of the signs that the virus may be circulating in the community. The ankle reflex was present but the knee reflex was lost. We sent samples to the laboratory and it was declared as a positive case of polio.

I held a number of roles during my time with the programme – Area Coordinator, Rapid Response Officer, Divisional Surveillance Officer – and I was fortunate enough to travel to other provinces. I went to northern KP (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) to respond to a WPV outbreak, and to southern KP and Gilgit-Baltistan for post campaign monitoring. I learned some phrases of the local language in northern KP – how many children do you have in the house, the numbers from one to ten, how many children are vaccinated, can I see their finger mark – phrases that helped me make a connection with mothers and understand their responses. I also used to take out my phone and show them photos of my son – he was four years old at the time – and tell them that he takes the polio drops in every campaign. It was great to make such a human connection and I was able to convince many refusals that way.

Seeing the programme at field level gave me great insights but so did working at the National Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) in Islamabad. It’s where all the work and knowledge comes together, and where staff from all the different the provinces come so it was a great opportunity to meet them and exchange experiences.

Women make up around 40 percent of the polio programme but mainly as frontline workers who go from house to house to vaccinate millions of children across the country. There aren’t so many women at higher levels, often because women don’t apply for these positions, which is a shame. On many occasions I found myself to be the only woman in a large meeting room, particularly the meetings where policies and protocols are discussed. I think the presence of more women in leadership roles will bring an interesting perspective to the programme, particularly given our roles as mothers and caregivers.

Today I’m in Atlanta, studying Global Health at Emory University. It was my experience with the polio programme that helped me get through all the stages of obtaining scholarship and a placement in such a reputed University. This is an interesting opportunity of learning from the experts, which again, is not new to me as this is exactly what I’ve been doing at the polio programme in Pakistan. I’m not sure where this will lead me – back to polio or to another part of public health, I don’t yet know. All I know is that I will go where my expertise leads me.

I hope one day I can tell my son the story of how polio was eradicated and how no child will ever be paralyzed by this virus again. I hope by that time, we direct our resources for protecting children from other diseases or, even better, to curb the infections that have potential to lock the whole world down.

Polio worker Soni Farhan has been selected for a Presidential Pride of Performance award, which honours individuals who are extraordinary in their field of work. © Syed Mehdi Bukhari/WHO
Polio worker Soni Faisal has been selected for a Presidential Pride of Performance award, which honours individuals who are extraordinary in their field of work. © Syed Mehdi Bukhari/WHO

Contracting the infectious virus at 11 months of age, few believed Soni would ever be able to work. Today, she’s a nominee for one of Pakistan’s most prestigious awards.

Soni started out in the programme in 1999, initially as a vaccinator. Now a mother of three children, these days, Soni works with the programme as a social mobilizer. Her role includes dispelling people’s misconceptions about the vaccine and engaging with parents about the importance of vaccinating their children.

When Soni received a notification from the Government of Pakistan that she had been selected for a Presidential Pride of Performance award, which honours individuals who are extraordinary in their field of work, she didn’t quite know how she felt. “I’m not really interested in accolades, but my son and my husband were very excited” she said.

Soni says her work with the polio eradication programme has given her life meaning and purpose. “People would look at my leg and say, ‘How will she work?! She can’t work. But when I started working, then everyone could see, ‘yes, yes she can’,” she says.

“The polio programme has given me so much confidence. After I started working in polio, I had the confidence of meeting new people. Meeting family, going to weddings, all of it became easier. Before that, I had no confidence to even step out of the house,” she continues.

Soni recalls how hesitant her father was when she first told him she wanted to join the programme. “He was concerned I won’t be able to manage because of my health, but he understood very soon that this was something I just had to do. He told my mother ‘let her do it’.”

During her early training as a vaccinator, Soni recalls the words of one of her trainers – ‘If you can save one child from polio, then you would have served the purpose of your life’. “I knew, then, this was it, “she says. “This is what I had to do.”

The year Soni was diagnosed with polio – 1984 – nearly 200 other children in her neighbourhood of Liaquatabad in Karachi were also diagnosed with the virus. At the time, there were no door-to-door campaigns and children could only be vaccinated at health centres.

Today, Pakistan and Afghanistan are the last two countries in the world where wild poliovirus is endemic. In 2021, only one child was paralyzed by the virus in Pakistan and four in neighbouring Afghanistan. In 2020, a total of 84 cases were reported in Pakistan and 56 in Afghanistan.

The eldest of six siblings, Soni came from a very conservative family, where her grandmother would not let children leave the house. “In our family, all the children were born at home because the women were not allowed to leave the house, and so I was never taken to a health centre for vaccination.”

“My father always lived with the regret of not vaccinating his daughter,” she says. “Often parents make these decisions, and it is the child who has to suffer for all their life.”

Both Soni’s parents tried everything they could to heal her condition – visiting different doctors, acupuncture specialists, and anyone they could find who might offer any assurances. She also went through a very extensive operation, with steel bolts put in her leg resulting in excruciating pain that lasted for months.

“No matter what you do, whatever you try, there is no cure for polio,” she says. “I wanted to study sciences, and my teacher didn’t allow me to because she would say how will you stand in labs all day. I would go to college and one of the women in the bus would see me and say ‘Look at her, such a beautiful girl and look at what happened to her foot’.”

Soni says that when she is working on campaigns and some people see her, they immediately want to vaccinate their children, while others question why she is telling them to vaccinate while having polio herself.

“To them I say, I am here because I know exactly how hard it is if you are not vaccinated.”

In November:

  • No case of WPV1 was confirmed
  • 35 million children were vaccinated during the MR Campaign in November 2021.
  • 1 million children were vaccinated at 73 Permanent Transit Points

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Vaccination team crossing river in West Garo Hills of Meghalaya. ©WHO

With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, continued wild polio transmission in the remaining endemic countries and spreading outbreaks of circulating vaccine-derived polioviruses type 2 (cVDPV2), this year began with many challenges facing polio eradication efforts. But amid this new reality, countries and partners of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) intensified their efforts to protect children from lifelong paralysis.

In June, the GPEI launched the new GPEI Strategy 2022-2026, which lays out the roadmap to achieving a lasting world free of all forms of polioviruses through stronger community engagement, a renewed focus on gender equity and the rollout of new tools and technologies. These new tools include the novel oral polio vaccine type 2 (nOPV2), which began deployment under Emergency Use Listing (EUL) as part of the GPEI’s broader polio vaccine repository to curb cVDPV2 transmission. In August, the WHO African Region celebrated one year since it was certified wild polio-free, and countries recommitted to strong cVDPV2 outbreak response across the continent with the support of the GPEI.

Further critical progress took place in Afghanistan – one of two final countries endemic for wild poliovirus, along with Pakistan. For the first time in more than three years, nationwide polio immunization campaigns resumed across Afghanistan reaching 8.5 million children, including 2.4 million children who were previously inaccessible.

At the same time, polio programme health workers at the forefront continued to support global COVID-19 response efforts by delivering vaccines, mobilizing communities, and countering misinformation among other activities. The use of GPEI infrastructure for health emergency response has provided critical lessons for integrating polio resources into broader health systems as more countries work towards transition and the post-certification period.

Containment area monitoring in India. ©WHO

Following dire predictions issued at the end of 2020, the polio programme once again proved its ability to adapt to programmatic, epidemiological and political developments. Entering 2022, there is much cause for cautious optimism – wild poliovirus transmission has slowed drastically, and cases of cVDPV2 have also declined compared to last year.

Importantly, commitment to achieving a lasting polio-free world is evident at all levels: by core GPEI partners, including among the Polio Oversight Board, which travelled to Pakistan twice in 2021; by health workers, communities and parents; and by country leaders worldwide who helped champion this year’s milestones. With the new strategy, new tools and adapted approaches, the stage is set to achieve lasting success.

To stop all forms of polio for good, the GPEI aims to capitalize on the positive epidemiological situation leading into 2022. A key opportunity to kick-start the year will be the WHO Executive Board meeting in January, where Member States plan to discuss building on the successes of this past year by fully implementing and financing the programme’s new strategy. Rotary and other key global GPEI partners are planning a renewed and intensified outreach across the broader international development community to secure the necessary financial resources to achieve success. Polio immunization campaigns will also continue in full force in both endemic and outbreak countries.

Twelve months ago, the programme was in a much different place, as WHO and UNICEF launched an Emergency Call to Action to draw attention to the need for renewed commitment. A year later, thanks to a strengthened and unified response, the GPEI is meeting the moment and is more committed than ever to end all forms of poliovirus, once and for all.

WHO Regional Director, Dr Ahmed Al-Mandhari, observes polio vaccination in Karachi. ©WHO EMRO

In November, George Laryea-Adjei (Regional Director for South Asia, UNICEF) and Dr Ahmed Al-Mandhari ( WHO Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean ) joined fellow GPEI leaders on a visit to Pakistan. The regional directors met with government stakeholders and health workers, and commended Pakistan on its impressive progress interrupting poliovirus transmission. See why the regional directors emphasized that there is no room for complacency on the path to a polio-free Pakistan.  For more information please visit WHO Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean and UNICEF websites.

 

In October:

  • No case of WPV1 was confirmed
  • 3.53 million children were vaccinated during October 2021 in KP outbreak response.
  • 0.6 million children were vaccinated at 73 Permanent Transit Points

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In September:

  • No case of WPV1 was confirmed
  • 41.5 million children were vaccinated during NIDs.
  • 0.8 million children were vaccinated at 72 Permanent Transit Points

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In August:

  • No case of WPV1 was confirmed
  • 23.4 million children were vaccinated during sNIDs.
  • 1 million children were vaccinated at 121 Permanent Transit Points

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The funding will be used to vaccinate approximately 16 million children in 84 highest-risk districts. © UAE

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) on July 24 announced an additional US$9.5 million support to the Pakistan Polio Eradication Initiative (PEI). The funding will be used to vaccinate approximately 16 million children during door-to-door immunization campaigns in 84 highest-risk districts as well as an additional US$376,000 to provide personal protective equipment against COVID-19 for the frontline campaign workers.

The funding, which will be utilized from July to December, brings to more than US$23 million made available by the UAE in 2021. The Emirates, a long-time supporter of Pakistan’s polio programme and its main funder, has provided over US$200 million in financial support since 2014. Pakistan is one of two countries where wild poliovirus remains endemic.

Speaking on behalf of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, Dr Palitha Mahipala, the World Health Organization Representative in Pakistan, thanked the UAE for its generous contribution, noting the UAE’s steadfast commitment not only to protecting children from lifelong paralysis but to the overall goal of polio eradication.

“The UAE has firmly stood by the polio programme with vital yearly contributions and in pleas for extra funding to address unforeseen challenges such as COVID-19,” he said. “This would not be possible without their support.”

Only one case of wild poliovirus has been reported in Pakistan in the first six months of the year, a significant decrease from the 59 cases reported during the same period in 2020. In order to be certified polio-free, Pakistan is required to report zero cases of wild poliovirus over a three-year period. The Government of Pakistan remains fully committed to reaching the goal of zero in the coming months.

The Emirates Polio Campaign plays an important role in driving eradication efforts at the frontline of Pakistan’s most vulnerable communities. © UAE

Through the Emirates Polio Campaign initiative, the UAE Pakistan Assistance Programme (UAE-PAP) plays an important role in driving eradication efforts at the frontline of Pakistan’s most vulnerable communities. In 2020, as part of the Emirates Polio Campaign, UAE-PAP support ensured close to 16 million children under five years of age received protection through repeated polio campaigns and all frontline workers in 84 districts received personal protective equipment and training to facilitate protection from COVID-19.

“The efforts and sacrifices of the field vaccination teams, who faced difficult field conditions and dangerous challenges, greatly contribute to the success of the campaigns and reducing the spread of poliovirus in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan,” said Mr. Abdullah Alghfeli, Director of the UAE-PAP.

Mr. Abdullah praised the humanitarian approach and the generous support of His Highness Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, adding that His Highness’s humanitarian initiative to eradicate polio is a major factor contributing to the elimination of the disease.

Dr Shahzad Baig, National Coordinator of the National Emergency Operations Centre (NEOC) for polio eradication warmly welcomed the contribution as an important boost in ensuring the programme continued door-to-door polio campaigns, the most effective way of immunizing against the virus, and ending polio in Pakistan.

“We are getting closer to our goal but this is not the time to be complacent,” he warned. “We are re-doubling our efforts to ensure the gains of the past don’t slip away.”

Zubaida Bibi leads a team in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in the country’s north. © WHO/EMRO

Health interventions and immunization activities are most effective when delivered by women.  During each nationwide polio vaccination campaign in Pakistan, women make up around 62 percent of the 280, 000+ frontline workforce vaccinating millions of children across the country.

With each campaign depending on the dedication of staff to reach all children, given their trusted roles and responsibilities in communities, female polio frontline workers are playing a key role in eradicating polio.

Breaking barriers to immunization

After three years as a monitor of campaign activities, Zubaida Bibi has progressed from being a polio team member to a team leader in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in the country’s north, one of the most affected areas in Pakistan.

Breaking the gender-related barriers to immunization, Zubaida travels extensively including hard-to-reach areas. Not even the winter season, when the roads and tracks are covered with snow, deters Zubaida.

“I would always tell them that the polio vaccine is totally safe for their children,” says Shumaila Majeed at work in Lahore. © Hassan Raza

“It leaves us with no option but to travel for miles and hours on foot to reach the children,” she says “Despite the challenges, I always try and motivate my teams, telling them that we are on a national mission to save the future of our children,” she says.

“It gives me a feeling of gratitude and satisfaction when the community appreciates our efforts for improving the health of their children,” adds Zubaida.

Building trust

For nine years, Shumaila Majeed has worked as a community-based health worker in Lahore, with a firm belief in empowering women and supporting their important presence in the polio programme.

Mothers would frequently ask her about the safety of the polio vaccine. “I would always tell them that the polio vaccine is totally safe for their children and build their trust,” says Shumaila.

“It’s very important to have women in every walk of life,” she explains. “Not only because women and grandmothers feel more comfortable when their children are vaccinated but to give more opportunities for woman to grow and excel.”

Through her work Shumaila wants to give young girls a message: stay focused on their goals and leave no stone unturned to make their dreams come true.

Persuading parents

In Pakistan, a significant number of parents and caregivers still doubt the effectiveness of vaccines. Karachi has long been a core reservoir for the poliovirus, with continuous and intense circulation.

Shagufta Naz, a community-based health worker in charge of Gulshan town, has been working for 21 years to ensure all children in her area are vaccinated on time. “Initially, parents used to hide their children from us due to their fear,” she explains.

Shagufta Naz is a trusted source of information about polio for her community in Karachi. © WHO/EMRO

Everyone who works with Shagufta is immediately impressed by her great care, her attention to detail and her meticulous record-keeping which is key to achieving vaccination targets. As a result of Shagufta’s hard work, vaccine refusals have reduced significantly. Her work is now so highly regarded that some parents will only have their children vaccinated by Shagufta, asking for her by name with each polio campaign.

“I got to know the community very well, built their trust,” she explains. “I know every pregnant woman and can tell you when she is due. Now, mothers regularly ask me about the next vaccination campaign.”

Going against all odds

Gul Parana, a Tehsil Communication Officer for the polio eradication programme in Balochistan province in the country’s southwest, recently graduated with a master’s degree.

Assigned to raise awareness about the benefits of vaccination in Chaman District, one of the most challenging areas for the polio programme, she is proud of her work despite many challenges.

Gul Parana raises awareness about the benefits of vaccination in remote Chaman District in Balochistan province. © WHO/EMRO

“Since Chaman is a very remote and conservative area, it’s not easy for a young girl like me to go out of the house. Most of my friends are not allowed to work. But I have a mission to save our children and give them a healthy future,” she says.

With support of her family, Gul Parana has become a symbol of strength for the girls of her locality. “I want to inspire other girls so they can also get an education and work. We need to have equal opportunities for every girl in Balochistan,” she adds.

In April:

  • No case of WPV1 was confirmed
  • 2,500,000 children were vaccinated during the April National Immunization Days (NIDs) in Balochistan
  • 800,000 children were vaccinated 126 Permanent Transit Points

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The Executive Board Room at WHO Headquarters during the 74th World Health Assembly. © WHO

Meeting virtually this week at the 74th World Health Assembly (WHA), global health leaders and ministers of health noted the new Global Polio Eradication Initiative Strategic Plan 2022-2026 and highlighted the importance of collective action to achieve success.

Member States emphasised the urgency of implementation of the strategic plan and urged the WHO Secretariat and Member States to build on recent advances to keep surveillance high, ensure sustained, improved coverage in campaigns and respond rapidly to outbreaks. Several Members States welcomed the establishment of a new EMRO Ministerial Regional Subcommittee on Polio Eradication and Outbreaks, and roll-out of the novel oral polio vaccine type 2 (nOPV2) to more effectively and sustainably address outbreaks of circulating vaccine-derived polioviruses (cVDPVs). The Minister of Health of Egypt, Dr Hala Zaid, as a Co-Chair of the Regional Sub-Committee said: “The Regional Subcommittee offers a new, ministerial-level channel to galvanize political support, leverage funding, particularly domestic funding, and raise the profile of polio as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. Its establishment reflects the firm commitment of the Eastern Mediterranean Region to do whatever it takes to stamp out poliovirus transmission and achieve eradication.”

Dr Ahmed Al-Mandhari, the Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean, addressed the delegates and noted a year of hard work across the Region. He emphasised the critical step of establishing the ministerial Sub-Committee to ensure more coordinated support for the remaining wild poliovirus-endemic and polio outbreak-affected countries in the Region. Speaking of the new vaccine, Dr Al-Mandhari said, “We are also at the dawn of what we hope will be a new era in responding to VDPV type-2 outbreaks, with an improved vaccine, the novel oral poliovirus type 2, approved for Emergency Use Listing and soon to be used in the Region.”

Member States noted support for local community, progress on closing outbreaks and welcomed efforts to unite with other initiatives to close gaps in immunization.  The WHA paid tribute to female frontline workers and highlighted their role in building community relationships. Amid the new COVID-19 reality, the WHA also expressed deep appreciation for the GPEI’s ongoing support to COVID-19 response. WHO’s Deputy Director-General, Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, highlighted the value of the polio infrastructure in addressing public health emergences, noting that the polio network has been the first in line of defence for COVID-19 response in many countries, and now providing valuable support to the rollout of Covid-19 vaccines. “It is our chance to retain the polio knowledge and expertise to build back stronger and more robust health systems. If we don’t act now, we will lose this enormous opportunity,” said Dr Jakab.

A vaccinator marking a vaccinated child during the March 2021 NIDs in Punjab district, Pakistan. © WHO/EMRO

The Regional Director for the African Region, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, thanked African countries and partners for rapidly restarting and innovating to deliver polio activities after a pause during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially following the successful certification of eradication of wild polioviruses last year in the region. Integrating polio functions into other programmes will be critical to maximising the gains against this disease, she said, and to leveraging the wealth of expertise and experience that has been built.

Rotary International welcomed the new strategy and its priority on integration and extended collaboration with partners, as well as its focus on gender equality. Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, highlighted the new strategy’s alignment with the Immunization Agenda 2030 and Gavi’s new 5-year strategy, and shared importance of reaching 0-dose children and missed communities with comprehensive and equitable immunization services.

Aidan O’Leary, WHO Director for Polio Eradication, addressed delegates, saying: “Wild poliovirus transmission is restricted to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and while we have seen a sharp decrease in incidence this year, this is no time for complacency.  Gaining and sustaining access to all children in Afghanistan and increasing coverage of missed children in core reservoir areas of Pakistan remain the key challenges, and we must all work together to overcome these to achieve and sustain zero cases.  At the same time, we must continue to respond to cVDPV2s.  The solutions focus not just on the new nOPV2, but also more timely detection, more timely and higher quality outbreak response and strengthening essential immunization services in zero-dose communities and children, aligned with the IA2030 agenda. The new strategy addresses the broader needs of communities through expanded integration and partnership efforts along six distinct workstreams. Implementation will be strengthened through a more systematic approach to performance, risk management and accountability at all levels.”

The new strategy – Delivering on a Promise – will be officially launched at a virtual event on 10 June 2021.  Details about the event are available here.