KARACHI – The only life Huma Ashraf has known outside her home is of a health worker. That’s what made her step out on September 11, 2023, when she was verifiying microplans in a slum behind a railway track.

Hours later, in a moment that would redefine her life, she was rushing to Karachi’s Jinnah Hospital in an ambulance all by herself, following a train accident.

“It all happened so fast. I had to verify the homes behind the tracks and the only way to get there is crossing the railway track,” she says, recalling that day of the accident with exceptional calm.  “The train seemed far away, and I thought I could cross over, but there was a gush of wind and my dupatta was caught in the train.”

In a mere matter of minutes, her life changed as she lost both feet.

The people who witnessed the accident called for an ambulance. With startling presence of mind, she collected the feet in the hope of a surgical reattachment and specified which hospital she wanted to go to.

Hina, her younger sister, is amazed by Huma’s courage that day. Showing the text message she received, she shares how Huma wrote to her with striking clarity. “Pair kat gaye hain, hospital ja rahi hun. Ammi abbu ko mat batana” (Have lost my feet, going to the hospital, don’t tell mom and dad.)

By the time Huma was taken into surgery, nearly five hours later, the damage was irreversible.

Hina worked up the courage to tell their parents about the accident after the surgery. Her mother initially thought Huma’s toes were affected. “I couldn’t fathom the extent of it,” says her mother Rukhsana.

A Legacy of Healing

Since Huma was 14, she has known what an aspirin could do, the contraceptives women would seek and that two drops of the oral polio vaccine could protect a child from lifelong, paralytic polio. These were her mother’s teachings. As she grew older, she also learnt how to administer injections. Rukhsana would ask Huma to try injections on her, consistently training her on how to provide basic health services to the community.

Rukhsana, a lady health worker, started working in 1995. As the eldest child, Huma would go along, and the mother-daughter duo would navigate the streets of Karachi, bringing essential healthcare within reach to women and children, and making friends along the way.

All of Rukhsana’s five children have worked for the Polio Eradication Initiative at some point, but it was Huma who stayed on as a frontline health worker, working in the Polio Programme as a team member and eventually rising in the ranks to become an area in-charge.

As vaccinators, there was a time when Huma and Rukhsana were one team, a team that they were very proud of. “When important people came in big cars, we were the team that would be introduced to them because everyone knew we did our job well,” Rukhsana says. “Everyone who saw Huma was amazed at how much she could walk in a day and now…I would have never imagined that one day Huma won’t be able to walk.”

“Both of us still forget what happened. Last night, someone came knocking on the door with some tea and I couldn’t find my slippers, so I asked Huma where hers were, but then I remembered that they would be somewhere on the railway tracks that day,” she adds.

Much of Huma’s nights are spent in pain, especially in the feet that are no longer there. “I think it’s the nerves, my nerves still feel the pain. I can feel my toes hurting, and then realize that they aren’t there anymore.”

Despite a life-changing loss, this is the work Huma still wants to do. “I want to return to work in polio,” she says with a belief that better days are yet to come. The accident has offererd a new level of acceptance and grace. “If God has put me through this difficult time, then I will also be given the strength to bear it.”

“My father cries a lot about this. I told him we have to accept things as they are. This has happened, Allah has put us through a difficult time. If one door closes, another one opens.”

The Bonds That Strengthen

The accident has redefined the meaning of family for Huma. The outpouring of support from colleagues and leaders in the Polio Programme has been overwhelming. For Irshad Sodhar, Coordinator for Sindh’s Emergency Operations Centre, ensuring Huma’s recovery is a mission.

“Looking after the wellbeing of frontline workers is most important. While they do this arduous job selflessly, it is the programme’s duty to support them when they face any adverse situation, especially in the course of their work,” he says.

He is a frequent visitor to the family, and Huma and Rukhsana both look forward to seeing him.

“It is my mission to ensure that Huma gets back on her feet. After the accident, I mobilized everyone we could, from the National EOC Coordinator to the Sindh Health Minister and Deputy Commissioner. We have worked to ensure the family has enough funds and the house is made disability friendly with toilets remade and all parts of it accessible for her. I am amazed by her resilience. After all this, she still wants to work to end polio,” he says, adding “Global polio eradication depends on the motivation of frontline workers. We can’t finish the job without the utmost support of frontline teams on ground.”

When Dr Shahzad Baig, the National EOC Coordinator, talks about Huma, the word that is oft repeated is of family. “Huma is one of the most remarkable people I have ever met,” he says. “We met soon after the accident and I was amazed to see how unbroken her spirit was. She only had gratitude and determination to be better. This feeling of awe stayed with me for days after I met her,” he says.

“She is the true spirit of our polio family. We will make sure she recovers completely and is able to walk on prosthetic feet. Our polio partner, Rotary, has already provided the support for the prosthesis.”

For Dr Zainul Abedin, the WHO National Polio Team Lead, Huma’s unbreakable spirit exemplifies the strength within the polio family. “Huma’s journey, marked by both loss and unyielding hope, mirrors the dedication of health workers across the country. There are many brave souls like Huma who are part of this noble mission to end polio from Pakistan,” he said.

Dr Abedin added: “We salute Huma and every frontline worker, acknowledging their sacrifices and commitment, and will continue to ensure a highly supportive environment for them.”

Huma’s journey and resilience caught the nation’s attention on October 24, 2023, World Polio Day.

In a ceremony that highlighted the relentless efforts of health workers in the fight against polio, Prime Minister Anwaarul Haq Kakar honoured Huma with a shield appreciating her services. This recognition was not just for her contributions to public health but also for her unyielding spirit in the face of adversity. Huma was unable to travel to Islamabad. Dr Baig accepted the award on her behalf and the PM vowed to bring it to her himself.

As Huma prepares for a new chapter in her life, her story is not just one of loss and hardship, but of immense strength, community support, and unwavering hope. “Things have changed, but life goes on,” Huma says with a smile. “We have to embrace it, whatever it brings.”

Huma is eager to start working for polio eradication again.

Sindh EOC Coordinator Irshad Sodhar got frontline workers from across Pakistan to send her messages, all of them expressing their belief in her and wishing for her strength. Huma had a message for them too: “You are not alone. There is a huge programme behind you, which is there for your support. Your work is greater than you think.”

Rukhsana says she has never felt as supported since she started working in 1995. “In this time, I have really felt what it means to be part of a family.”

By Zehra Abid,
Communications Officer, WHO Pakistan (Video by NEOC)

The sound of drums is enough to rouse even the sun, prompting it to wrestle the early morning smog for a front-row seat in a local Pashtun community in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. As tea stall owners set up shop for the day, curious women peek out of their windows, and excited children rush out of their houses to flock around the mysterious drummer. And as he moves from street to street, they run alongside him. Flushed with excitement, they start dancing to the familiar local tunes, some of them falling over each other. All smiling. It is a welcome distraction on a cold January morning.

This lively scene, however, is no accident. A banner draped around the drummer carries a powerful message: “Let’s vaccinate our children regularly to eradicate polio. The upcoming vaccination campaign begins on 8th January. Help us vaccinate your children whenever a health team visits your house.” This ‘attention-grabbing’ approach, blending cultural traditions with polio awareness campaigns, is the brainchild of UNICEF’s Social Behavior Change team working with the government’s Provincial Polio Emergency Operations Centre in Punjab.

Leading this creative team is Sajida Mansoor, who understands that information overload on polio vaccination can overwhelm parents, at times to the point of inaction.

“Out-of-the-box thinking was required to respond to the challenge. That’s how we came up with this unconventional but fun idea of using drums to spread awareness and highlight key immunization dates to reach children, especially those who were consistently missing polio vaccination,” says Sajida, a long time UNICEF staffer supporting polio eradication efforts in the country.

Zafar, the drummer, uses his rhythmic beats to attract a crowd of children and adults to share information about the upcoming polio campaign, in a neighborhood in Rawalpindi, Punjab, Pakistan. © UNICEF/Pakistan
Zafar, the drummer, uses his rhythmic beats to attract a crowd of children and adults to share information about the upcoming polio campaign, in a neighborhood in Rawalpindi, Punjab, Pakistan. © UNICEF/Pakistan

Zafar Iqbal, the drummer, suddenly stops playing, to allow the call for prayers from the local mosque to be heard in the community. Zafar is a seasoned professional musician who sustains his livelihood by showcasing his talent at various cultural events when he is not engaged with the polio eradication programme.

But the polio percussion show isn’t over yet. Joining Zafar at center-stage is seven-year-old Gul Bahisht. She confidently delivers a brief speech she has composed: “Do you know Pakistan is very close to finishing off polio? But I learnt that the virus is still spreading in our area and can paralyze children. We must vaccinate all children and protect them from being hurt and disabled from polio. I have been vaccinated. Why not vaccinate your child too. It’s easy and simple. Just two drops for your child in every campaign and we will all be free from polio forever.”

Zafar picks up where he left off and the rhythmic beat of his drums resume, bringing immense laughter and joy to the delighted children and their families in the neighborhood.

This engaging strategy has struck a chord with local communities. In neighborhoods where the initiative was first introduced, parents became more receptive. Mother and fathers happily opened their doors to polio vaccination teams. It enabled them to vaccinate a large cohort of children who had consistently missed vaccination due to reasons cited as ‘not available,’ which often meant the parents did not open their doors to vaccinators.   Children embraced the teams without distrust, resulting in more efficient vaccination coverage.

This achievement underscores the importance of extending the initiative to other neighborhoods in future campaigns, particularly in communities where some children consistently miss their vaccinations.

A polio worker, Shazia Bibi (right) vaccinates a seven month old boy held by his mother in a neighborhood in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. © UNICEF/Pakistan/Bokhari.
A polio worker, Shazia Bibi (right) vaccinates a seven month old boy held by his mother in a neighborhood in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. © UNICEF/Pakistan/Bokhari.

“This approach has helped us break down the barriers with caregivers and they are more receptive to communicating with us.  We are dedicated to ensuring that our teams on the ground actively respect the religious and cultural norms of the local community. For instance, drummers like Zafar pause their beats during calls for prayer, demonstrating social and religious sensitivity. Additionally, the musical elements are in accordance with the cultural norms of the community,” adds Sajida.

In communities across Lahore and Rawalpindi where the ‘drummer’ strategy was introduced, polio teams managed to vaccinate every single available child. This was a significant contribution to the 96 per cent vaccination coverage achieved in the Punjab province during the recent campaign.

Meanwhile, back in Rawalpindi, Zafar’s percussion jam for polio eradication continues to reverberate in the neighborhood. A father himself, he made sure his youngest two-month-old daughter was vaccinated during the recent vaccination campaign.

“I feel very happy and blessed that the beats from my drums bring joy to people, and at the same time support an important cause that protects our children in Pakistan from deadly diseases like polio,” says Zafar with a smile.

By Wasif Mahmood,
UNICEF Polio Communication Officer, Provincial Emergency Operations Center, Punjab

Geneva, Switzerland, January 2024 Convening this week at the World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters, global health leaders and Ministers of Health at the WHO Executive Board (EB) reaffirmed their commitment to eradicate polio once and for all and use the polio investments to build strong, equitable and resilient health systems.

Opening the EB amid a wide array of public health topics on the agenda, WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told assembled delegates:  “We continue to intensify our efforts to eradicate polio. Last year, six cases of wild poliovirus were reported in Pakistan, and six in Afghanistan, the second-lowest number of cases reported in a calendar year. Our target is to interrupt transmission of wild poliovirus this year.”

Member States noted the unique opportunity to eradicate remaining wild poliovirus type 1 endemic transmission, which is now limited to just a handful of areas of eastern Afghanistan and three districts of southern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan, and urged for continued intensified efforts to reaching all remaining un- or under-immunized children in those areas.  Delegates also reiterated the importance of intensifying efforts to combat variant poliovirus outbreaks (circulating vaccine-derived polioviruses), including through strengthened outbreak response and the continued roll-out of novel oral polio vaccine type 2, which became the first vaccine used under Emergency Use Listing (EUL) to be pre-qualified by WHO.  The engines of transmission for such strains are in clearly-identified and known most consequential geographies, namely north-western Nigeria, eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, south-central Somalia and northern Yemen.

Speaking on behalf of WHO Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean Dr Ahmed Al Mandhari, Dr Hamid Jafari, Director for Polio Eradication in the Eastern Mediterranean said:  “In Afghanistan and Pakistan, the national programmes deployed innovative strategies and strengthened partnerships with humanitarian actors to reach more children. And across the region, the programme also identified pathways for sustaining essential polio functions, through integration with existing programmes. In particular, I am proud of the work of the Regional Subcommittee for Polio Eradication and Outbreaks that we started back in 2021. Their advocacy and support have successfully carved out clear pathways towards protecting children in the Region from polio and other vaccine-preventable diseases.”

Within this context, delegates thanked current Regional Director Dr Ahmed Al Mandhari, for his personal engagement and leadership in bringing the region to the threshold of success; and welcomed his successor, Dr Hanan H Balkhy, who committed to leading the region across the finish line.

“On behalf of the core partners of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, Rotary International, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), UNICEF, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, we would like to thank all Member States for their tremendous efforts,” said Aidan O’Leary, WHO Director for Polio Eradication and Chair of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative Strategy Committee.  “Last year, thanks to your efforts, upwards of 800 million children were immunized, many in areas with protracted and complex emergencies.  The reality is that it is precisely in such areas of complex emergencies where polio persists, and unfortunately those emergencies are becoming even more complex.  We need the continued political will of Member States to overcoming whatever geo-political challenges might currently stand in the way of reaching that remaining last unreached child in these areas.  Be assured that together with our partners, we stand ready to support you in your incredible efforts.”  Underscoring WHO’s commitment to the effort, O’Leary reminded the EB that WHO now considered the effort to eradicate polio as its only Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), under the International Health Regulations (IHR).

O’Leary also reminded delegates of our collective duty to prepare for a lasting polio-free world. He referenced specifically the new approach to polio transition, which draws upon lessons-learned, and puts countries at the forefront, as solutions need to be country-specific, tailored to each country’s own context.  Within that context, delegates emphasized the importance of implementing all activities to not only achieve a polio-free world, but also to sustain it through strengthening essential immunization, surveillance, integration and transition, reiterating their support and commitment to fully finance the Global Polio Eradication Initiative Strategy and the WHO base budget.

Speaking on behalf of Rotarians around the world and civil society as a whole, Judith Diment of Rotary International’s PolioPlus Committee, congratulated delegates on ongoing efforts to protect children from devastating diseases such as polio.  “The Global Polio Eradication Initiative is closing in on zero, with fewer cases in fewer places in 2023, reaching more children through tailored approaches to increase public demand and identifying missed children.  We applaud the use of targeted, integrated activities.”

The Global Polio Eradication Initiative has two goals laid out in its current strategy: to interrupt all remaining transmission of endemic wild poliovirus type 1 (WPV1) and to stop all outbreaks of variant poliovirus type 2 (cVDPV2). 2023 was a critical year for progressing on each of these, and while our urgent and diligent work to end polio must continue into 2024, the GPEI achieved incredible things in the past twelve months.

Continuing work in endemic countries

Despite significant geo-political and environmental challenges in the two remaining WPV1-endemic countries, Pakistan and Afghanistan, the polio programme has continued to reach greater numbers of children with polio vaccines.

WHO Representative in Afghanistan, Dr. Luo Dapeng, vaccinating children against measles in a mobile clinic in Baba Wali Village of Kandahar province. © WHO/Afghanistan

Wild polio transmission was beaten back to just a handful of districts in eastern Afghanistan and the southern area of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in Pakistan. In both countries, efforts are increasingly focused on reaching and vaccinating the last remaining ‘zero dose’ children – children who have received no vaccines of any kind. The number of these missed children continues to dwindle, with the success of improved collaboration with the national immunisation program, new efforts like Pakistan’s Nomad Vaccination Initiative and focused vaccination activities at border crossings between the two countries. Just one family of the virus remains endemic in each country, and coupled with this increasing geographic restriction, the situation resembles the end of wild polio eradication efforts in former virus hotspots like India, Nigeria and Egypt.

In addition, after a wild poliovirus outbreak that was confirmed in southeast Africa in early 2022, neither Malawi nor Mozambique has reported a WPV case since August 2022 thanks to a concerted subregional emergency response across five neighbouring countries. We are hopeful that this outbreak will be officially closed in the coming months, affirming that countries have what it takes to protect children from this devastating disease and keep wild polio out of Africa.

Progress on variant polio outbreaks

Thanks to the novel oral polio vaccine type 2 (nOPV2), strong political commitment and community-based efforts to reach more children with the vaccine, the number of cases of variant poliovirus type 2 (cVDPV2) continued to decline in 2023.

Nearly 1 billion doses of nOPV2, a comparably safe, effective, but more genetically stable version of the existing type 2 oral polio vaccine (mOPV2), have now been administered across 35 countries, protecting millions of children from illness and paralysis.

Emergency response to variant polio outbreaks is continuing, notably in the most consequential geographies for the programme—where children are at the highest risk of encountering and spreading poliovirus. In northern Nigeria, for example, variant polio cases have fallen by 90% since a peak in 2021, thanks to concerted commitment from government, unique community programs to improve the reach of vaccines and the extensive rollout of nOPV2. Across these consequential geographies, the programme will continue to focus on increasing access, acceptance and campaign quality, which have helped make incredible progress in Nigeria, and continue to innovate until we end polio for good everywhere.

Finally, In September 2023, after a massive vaccination response in the shadow of ongoing war, Ukraine officially stopped its outbreak of type 2 variant polio that began in 2021. New York, London and Jerusalem, where high-profile outbreaks began in 2022, have not detected the virus in recent months. Still, the emergence of polio in these areas is a reminder that as long as poliovirus exists anywhere, it is a threat to people everywhere.

nOPV2 Vaccination at Guilding Angel School Tunga, Minna, Niger. © WHO/AFRO

A global effort

Most importantly, thanks to the efforts of the GPEI and its partners, health workers vaccinated more than 400 million children in 2023, preventing an estimated 650,000 cases of paralysis from polio and saving the lives of up to 60,000 children. Building full, healthy futures was at the core of Rotary International’s mission when it began this fight to end polio for good in 1985, and when the GPEI was launched in 1988—35 years ago.

This year, the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) conducted a rigorous mid-term review of the GPEI’s progress towards its strategic goals. This welcome counsel is already helping inform and guide the GPEI’s own ongoing analysis and strengthening of its strategic approaches to achieve a polio-free world, as the programme published its initial response to the mid-term review, under the guidance of the Polio Oversight Board (POB).

Achieving and sustaining a polio-free world has proven harder – and taken longer – than anyone could have imagined. But making history is never easy, and we are confident that together we can eradicate a second human disease from this earth, and build stronger, more resilient health systems along the way.

2023 has firmly set the stage for success. With the complexities of the world today, this programme still inspires to bring about the very best in our humanity.

Thank you to all who have contributed to this effort so far and continue to do so. Let us double down and make the dream of a polio-free world a reality.

PARIS (5 December 2023) – Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Remy Rioux, CEO of the Agence Française de Développement (AFD) announced today new commitments that implement the Paris Pact principles combining official development assistance and private investment and support the objective of global polio eradication by 2026.

The funding – an up to €55 million concessional loan, with an up to €20 million principal buy-down from the Gates Foundation will support Pakistan’s national health institutions and the Pakistan Polio Eradication Initiative to recover following impacts from the devastating floods in August 2022.

Supporting healthcare system resilience to climate change  

The floods in 2022 were Pakistan’s worst natural disaster in decades highlighting multiple climatic vulnerabilities faced by the country. The human toll was tragically high with one third of the country submerged underwater, approximately 15,000 killed or injured and 8 million displaced. Damage to infrastructure was also catastrophic: over 2 million homes, 13,000 kilometers of highways, 439 bridges and 888 health centers were damaged or destroyed leaving the populations affected by the floods without access to healthcare. Flooding also triggers an upsurge in water-borne diseases (severe diarrhea and cholera) and diseases carried by insects (dengue fever and malaria).

The new project is a contribution to the Pakistani efforts to chart progress towards a climate resilient health system capable of anticipating, recovering from, and adapting to climate-related shocks and stresses, so as to bring about sustained improvements in population health, despite an unstable climate. By supporting the Pakistan Polio Eradication Programme (PEI), through the World Health Organization (WHO), in immunization activities, disease surveillance, polio campaign monitoring and other technical areas, the AFD investment will enhance systems able to target climate-sensitive diseases and their risk sources.  Importantly, this funding will also provide further support for female polio health care workers, whose efforts and experiences are central to Pakistan’s success against polio and other diseases.

 Pakistan Polio Eradication Program

Pakistan has reported five cases of paralysis from polio so far this year. The virus has also been detected in sewage water in 20 districts in the four major provinces, reaffirming that polio continues to pose a threat to children living in poor sanitary conditions with low immunity and poor nutrition.

Dr. Chrysoula Zacharopoulou, Secretary of State in charge of Development, Francophonie and International Partnerships for the French Government, said: “I would like to thank the Agence Française de Développement and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for their commitment to Pakistan. This €55 million investment helps to address a dual challenge that is central to the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs’ global health strategy and its international partnerships policy: strengthening our partners’ health systems while taking into account the impact of climate change on public health. This programme is an excellent illustration of this.”

Dr. Nadeem Jan, Federal Minister of National Health Services Regulations & Coordination in Pakistan emphasized the significance of this funding and polio infrastructure in Pakistan: “We welcome the support of the French Government and the Gates Foundation as we near the finish line on polio eradication. The Pakistan Polio Eradication Programme is a vital part of our healthcare system and investing in polio builds the country’s overall health system.”

Pakistan has made incredible progress toward eradication, and by addressing barriers to eradication—including gender-related barriers—will continue to do so” said Dr. Ahmad Al-Mandhari, WHO Regional Director. Commitments like this will help keep the country on track to interrupt transmission of wild poliovirus for good and help deliver a more resilient, polio-free world.”

Since 1994, the Pakistan Polio Eradication Programme has been fighting to end the crippling poliovirus from the country. The national initiative is driven by trained and dedicated polio workers, the largest surveillance network in the world, quality data collection and analysis, behavioral change communication, state of the art laboratories, and some of the best epidemiologists and public health experts in Pakistan and the world.

Thank you to the Government of France and the Government of Pakistan for their continued leadership in the fight to end polio.” said Mark Suzman, CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “From France’s commitment to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative last year to today’s new financing partnership between the French Development Agency and the Government of Pakistan, these additional resources are essential to ensuring no child suffers from this devastating disease again.”

“Six months after signing our strengthened strategic and financial partnership for gender equality and human development in Africa and South Asia, I am honored to announce our first joint investment with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. We will both support Pakistan’s polio eradication program and work towards a strengthened integrated national epidemiological surveillance system.  This partnership is one of the long-term responses to the August 2022 devastating floods, which severely affected national health institutions. From eradicating polio to strengthening health systems as a whole, we are committed to investing in global levers of change to promote sustainable health for all” said Remy Rioux, CEO of the Agence Française de Développement.

==

For 15 years, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has worked with the French government to amplify the positive impact of development assistance and scientific expertise in low-income countries by supporting research and the translation of scientific discoveries into sustainable solutions, particularly as part of global alliances, including Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance; The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria; and the World Health Organization. France and the Gates Foundation are also key partners in:

 About the Agence Française de Développement

Agence Française de Développement (AFD) implements France’s policy on international development and solidarity. Through its financing of NGOs and the public sector, as well as its research and publications, AFD supports and accelerates transitions towards a fairer, more resilient world. With our partners, we are building shared solutions with and for the people of the Global South. Our teams are at work on more than 4,000 projects in the field, in 115 countries and in regions in crisis. We strive to protect global public goods – promoting a stable climate, biodiversity and peace, as well as gender equality, education and healthcare. In this way, we contribute to the commitment of France and the French people to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Towards a world in common.

https://www.afd.fr/en

About the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is a nonprofit fighting poverty, disease, and inequity around the world. For over 20 years, it has focused on improving people’s health and giving them the chance to lift themselves out of hunger and extreme poverty. Based in Seattle, Washington, the foundation is led by CEO Mark Suzman, under the direction of Co-chairs Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates and the board of trustees.

https://www.gatesfoundation.org/

Contacts

  • Isabelle Dedieu, dedieui@afd.fr, AFD Press officer
  • media@gatesfoundation.org

Published by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on 5 December 2023.

DUBAI, UAE, 3 December 2023 – The Islamic Development Bank (IsDB), together with the Government of Pakistan, announced a US$100 million loan to support Pakistan’s polio eradication efforts, today, at the Reaching the Last Mile Forum held on the sidelines of the ongoing COP28 events in Dubai, UAE.

This loan builds on a previous support from the IsDB and includes a US$35 million principal buy-down from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The new funding complements previous loans and will be used to secure and deliver the millions of polio vaccines needed to protect all children across Pakistan against this debilitating yet preventable virus.

“I am very pleased to announce that the IsDB approved US$100 million financing in the 4th Phase of Polio Eradication Program for Pakistan in April 2023, which brings the IsDB total financing for Polio eradication in Pakistan to US$ 587 million, making the Bank one of the largest providers of finance to the national polio eradication program in Pakistan. Under this latest phase, I am happy to note that US$ 60 million of this amount was disbursed in mid-November 2023. We and our partners remain committed and are working hard to win this battle against this disease. We really are at the last mile in this long journey as only 5 cases of wild poliovirus have been reported in the country in 2023,” IsDB President and Group Chairman, H.E. Dr. Muhammad Al Jasser, reiterated in his statement read out by IsDB Vice President Finance, Dr. Zamir Iqbal, at the Forum. “I would like to thank the Government of Pakistan, as well as our partners, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, UNICEF and WHO for their steadfast commitment,” added the statement.

Today, Pakistan and Afghanistan are the only countries where wild poliovirus remains endemic.

“We welcome the support of the IsDB and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in contributing to the critical effort of ending polio in Pakistan,” said H.E. Dr. Nadeem Jan, Minister of National Health Services Regulations and Coordination. “Interrupting poliovirus transmission remains a core focus for the Government of Pakistan, and thanks to the heroic efforts of community health workers, global partners and contributors like the IsDB and the foundation, we have pushed the virus to the brink of eradication,” the Minister added.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation sees this loan as an important step forward for eradication efforts in Pakistan. “We are pleased to partner again with the IsDB and the Government of Pakistan to ensure funding opportunities to provide the needed resources to reach every child with polio vaccines. I remain inspired by the strong commitment from leaders across Pakistan to ending polio at both the provincial and national levels,” said Chris Elias, President of the Global Development Division at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Chair of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative Polio Oversight Board. “With continued support to health workers and the efforts from partners like the IsDB, I am confident we will end polio in Pakistan,” he reiterated.

On the occasion, WHO Director General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, stated: “WHO remains committed to working with our partners to support Pakistan’s effort to end polio for good.” He added: “These funds will allow Pakistan to raise immunization coverage, improve its ability to find and respond to this virus, and make polio history for children in Pakistan and around the world.”

This loan will enable the Pakistan polio program to reach all children and communities with this life-saving vaccine to ensure no one suffers from this debilitating disease in the future. It will also help meet the country’s commitment of US$155 million towards its national polio program supported by the partners of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI).

As one of the two implementing partners of the GPEI in Pakistan, UNICEF will support the government to procure and deliver vaccines to children, protect communities from polio and reach families with other essential health services. “We are at a critical moment in Pakistan, and we cannot ease up the fight against polio until every child is protected,” UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Omar Abdi said, adding: “UNICEF is committed to ending polio in Pakistan because we know it is possible. We have seen polio disappear from country after country across the globe. Today there are only two countries where it persists. Together, we can reach every child with polio vaccines, especially those who have not been vaccinated before, and we can end wild poliovirus transmission in Pakistan for good.”

Originally published by the Islamic Development Bank on 3 December 2023

 

A polio worker marking a child’s finger during the first polio campaign after the floods. © WHO/Pakistan

Pakistan, one of the last two endemic countries for wild polio, is closer than ever before to ending this devastating disease for good. However, many experts say Pakistan is among the countries most vulnerable to the climate crisis. As the world becomes hotter, more frequent and severe heatwaves, intense droughts, and devastating floods, threaten the incredible progress that has been made against polio.   

Just last year, from May to October 2022, a historic heat wave was followed by heavy monsoon rains and melting Himalayan glaciers, causing the worst floods in Pakistan’s history—almost one-third of the country was under water at its peak. One in seven people in the country were affected by these floods and close to eight million people were displaced, including thousands of polio workers themselves.1   

Critical infrastructure across the country was also damaged, from roads and bridges to health and sanitation systems. Such devastation following floods and storms leads to wastewater overflow, compromising safe drinking water and spreading pathogens like cholera and polio.2 This increases the risk of people encountering these life-threatening diseases while making it even harder to reach every child with the necessary vaccines to protect them.  

In response to this climate emergency,3 the programme activated extreme weather contingency plans to resume immunization activities for polio and other vaccine-preventable diseases as soon as possible. This included adjusting campaign schedules and strategies, such as conducting vaccinations at health camps, at transit points, and in settlements for displaced persons. In some cases, this meant wading through deep water to reach children with life-saving vaccines. Despite the extraordinary circumstances, the programme managed to reach nearly 32 million children in the country during its August 2022 campaign.  

Health worker Shahida Saleem sits outside her house in Fatehpur, Rajanpur district during a polio campaign in September 2022. © WHO/Pakistan

The GPEI also committed to supporting more than 12,500 polio workers across the country who were impacted by the floods.4 Nasreen Faiz, a team member who took part in polio campaigns following the floods, was among those affected. “One after the other, house after house was destroyed… My entire village was finished. The crops were gone, the homes were gone, the animals were dead,” she recounted. Shahida Saleem, another polio worker, evacuated her home for the floods and came back to find it severely damaged and her belongings under three-feet deep water.  

The GPEI quickly secured funds to compensate those workers who suffered full or partial damage to their homes, like Nasreen and Shahida. As of April 2023, cheques worth Rs216 million (approximately US$752,000) had been distributed to 10,500 polio workers. While no amount of money can offset the loss and havoc from these devastating floods, the GPEI worked to support the workforce as much as possible.   

Lastly, the programme drew on its long history of supporting humanitarian crises to help address the impacts of this climate emergency in the communities it serves. It helped establish critical health camps in flood-affected districts to provide basic health services, from the administration of routine immunizations and treatment of diseases to the distribution of water purification tablets and provision of nutrition services. To continue fighting polio and other infectious diseases, programme staff also actively conducted disease surveillance and collected and analysed data to help target outbreak response strategies in these high-risk settings.  

Above all, working hand-in-hand with communities and local authorities, the polio programme was able to adapt its operations to ensure progress against polio in Pakistan was not lost and the polio workforce and affected communities were supported in the aftermath of this climate disaster. While the programme was able to successfully respond in this instance, it will face even more disruptions like this on the road to ending polio as the world becomes hotter. Learnings from its work in Pakistan following the floods will be essential to ensure that the fight against this devastating disease can continue amid future disruptions, and that its staff and communities are protected along the way.  


[1] https://www.usaid.gov/sites/default/files/2022-12/2022-09-30_USG_Pakistan_Floods_Fact_Sheet_8.pdf 
[2] https://www.gavi.org/vaccineswork/over-half-infectious-diseases-made-worse-climate-change 
[3] https://polioeradication.org/news-post/pakistan-polio-infrastructure-continues-support-to-flood-relief-while-intensifying-efforts-to-eradicate-polio/
[4] https://polioeradication.org/news-post/after-the-floods/ 

Led by Dr Chris Elias, Chair of the Polio Oversight Board and President Global Development, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the delegation included WHO Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean Region Dr Ahmad Al-Mandhari, UNICEF South Asia’s Deputy Regional Director Noala Skinner, CDC’s Polio Eradication Branch Chief Dr Omotayo Bolu, Chief Programme Strategy Officer from Gavi-the Vaccine Alliance, Aurelia Nguyen, Trustee of Rotary International Foundation Aziz Memon, and High Commissioner of Canada in Pakistan Leslie Scanlon, who represented all donors to the GPEI.

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Dr Nadeem Jan, newly-appointed interim Federal Health Minister Pakistan, and Aidan O’Leary, Chair of the GPEI Strategy Committee. © NEOC Pakistan

4 September 2023 – Recognising the importance of Pakistan in the global polio eradication effort, as one of the last two WPV1-endemic countries, the operational polio leadership of WHO and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) travelled this week to Pakistan to observe first-hand operations, latest developments and innovations, and meet with newly-appointed political leadership.  The delegation, which was in-country from 29 August to 1 September, consisted of Director of Polio Eradication at WHO Headquarters and Chair of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) Strategy Committee Aidan O’Leary from WHO and Richard Franka, Team Lead of the Pakistan Team at Polio Eradication Branch, CDC.

The GPEI leaders noted the unprecedented historic opportunity to achieve success in the country this year, with WPV1 transmission at record-low levels.  At the same time, the group noted the high level of engagement and political will for the effort, at all levels.  Meeting with Dr Nadeem Jan, newly-appointed interim Federal Health Minister who visited the polio National Emergency Operations Centre (NEOC) on his very first day in office last month, the delegation received assurance that polio eradication is a key operational priority for Dr Jan’s tenure.

Provincial caretaker Health Minister Dr Saad Niaz and Aidan O’Leary discuss steps the programme is taking to keep track of polio cases in Karachi. © NEOC Pakistan

Dr Jan stated:  “It is important for us that our country and global partners and donors stand together in this final leg of the eradication journey.  I am a polio worker at heart.  I will ensure that not only does polio remain a priority at all tiers of governance, but efforts are more targeted and intensified.”

This level of commitment was further mirrored at meetings with other national and provincial political and health leaders, including the Engineer-in-Chief at the General Headquarters in Islamabad, provincial health ministers of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh, and the Chief Secretary of Sindh, to ensure the new interim administration in the country carries the positive momentum forward.  Together, concrete ways to capitalize on the current epidemiological opportunity were discussed, including in fully implementing recommendations by the recent Technical Advisory Group (TAG) for Polio Eradication in Pakistan and Afghanistan, in particular in implementing area-specific and tailored tactics to overcome area-specific challenges to reaching remaining un- or under-vaccinated children.  The delegation also visited field activities and witnessed first-hand the tremendous efforts, innovations and commitments undertaken by polio workers and local communities, including in the remaining WPV1-endemic districts of the southern area of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Speaking on behalf of the delegation, Aidan O’Leary commented:  “Rarely have I seen this level of commitment to achieve success.  On behalf of the GPEI, and on behalf of children and parents everywhere, I would like to thank and commend authorities at all levels in Pakistan for their tremendous engagement, leadership and commitment to reaching every last child.  Literally no stone is being left unturned to find and vaccinate all remaining unvaccinated children, in particular in the remaining endemic areas of the southern area of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.  With this level of commitment, I am confident a polio-free Pakistan will soon be achieved, and GPEI partners of course remain committed in supporting Pakistan’s authorities in this quest.”

The delegation was also attended by members of the international development community, including local representatives of Rotary International.

ISLAMABAD, JULY 21, 2023 – A high-level delegation of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), including the Polio Oversight Board, visited Pakistan to discuss the impact of political transition on eradication efforts and the strategies in place to vaccinate children that remain unreached in the polio-endemic districts of southern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Led by Dr Chris Elias, Chair of the Polio Oversight Board and President Global Development, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the delegation included WHO Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean Region Dr Ahmad Al-Mandhari, UNICEF South Asia’s Deputy Regional Director Noala Skinner, CDC’s Polio Eradication Branch Chief Dr Omotayo Bolu, Chief Programme Strategy Officer from Gavi-the Vaccine Alliance, Aurelia Nguyen, Trustee of Rotary International Foundation Aziz Memon, and High Commissioner of Canada in Pakistan Leslie Scanlon, who represented all donors to the GPEI.

This was the first visit by the POB and representatives from all GPEI partners to Pakistan in 2023. The POB is the highest decision-making and oversight body of the GPEI.

During the four-day visit from 16 – 20 July that included Lahore, Peshawar and Islamabad, the delegates visited the National and Provincial Emergency Operations Centers, attended a meeting of the National Task Force on Polio Eradication, and held separate meetings with the leadership of the Pakistan Army, Health Minister Abdul Qadir Patel and Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.

“Pakistan continues to make important progress in the fight to eradicate polio. I’m impressed by the commitment I’ve seen again this week from the federal and provincial governments in getting the job done,” said POB Chair Dr Chris Elias. “The experience globally is that strong government leadership is key in the final push to defeat polio.”

The delegation also met the Governor of Punjab, Chief Minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and provincial chief secretaries, health secretaries, commissioners and deputy commissioners of priority districts of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Lahore and Peshawar, respectively, and met with the Chief Secretary of Balochistan.

“While the challenges before us are formidable and complex, I remain cautiously optimistic about the goal of interrupting transmission of poliovirus in Pakistan by the end of this year. This will require solidarity and collective action at all levels to enable rigorous implementation of the strategy, that must be fully supported by communities and the political, administrative and security leadership,” said WHO Regional Director Dr Ahmed Al-Mandhari.

Endemic transmission of wild poliovirus remains restricted to seven districts in the south of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, namely Tank, Bannu, North Waziristan, South Waziristan Upper, South Waziristan Lower, DI Khan and Lakki Marwat.

A vaccination campaign is ongoing in the seven endemic districts named “Reaching the Unreached.” The campaign specifically targets over 270,000 children under five in 69 low-performing union councils where vaccine coverage for polio and other essential immunization has been inadequate.

 “Under our regional vision of health for all by all, WHO will continue supporting Pakistan’s polio programme to give our future generations a world free from polio,” Dr Al-Mandhari added.

UNICEF’s Deputy Regional Director Noala Skinner appreciated the leadership. “We applaud the leadership of Pakistan and the dedication of frontline workers, including thousands of women, who tirelessly vaccinate and protect millions of children from the deadly poliovirus,” she said, adding, “The next six months are critical for Pakistan’s efforts to eradicate polio.  We are so close to our goal of reaching all children with polio vaccines. Together, we must ensure that the programme is able to reach every child in Pakistan, regardless of where they live.”

Dr Humayun Asghar. © WHO/EMRO

The vast machinery of the global polio eradication programme is much like the inner workings of a clock – a network of interconnected people, organizations and programmes that together are more powerful than the sum of their parts. Collaboration is foundational to eradication, and every eradicator plays a part in edging the programme closer to its goals.

But in some cases, individual eradicators develop capacities or practices that enable programmatic leaps. Dr Humayun Asghar is one of those outsize drivers of progress. His initiatives around early laboratory testing of stool samples of children with acute flaccid paralysis (AFP), his efforts to create  a cross-regional network of labs, and his efforts to set up a large pioneering network of environmental surveillance sites in Egypt are innovations that today power the programme’s surveillance capacity. We know where the virus is, even in the absence of paralytic polio cases, largely thanks to his work.

In 1988, when Dr Humayun joined the National Institute of Health (NIH) in Pakistan’s capital city of Islamabad, polio was paralysing more than 1000 children worldwide every day and the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) was just being set up. Dr Humayun spotted an opportunity to stop the spread of poliovirus by tracking it – which meant identifying which children with AFP were infected with poliovirus and which children were experiencing paralysis for other reasons. In 1991, Dr Humayun began to contact pediatricians and, later, vaccinators, to collect stool samples from children who presented with AFP to test them for poliovirus infection. In a nod to the doctors’ and vaccinators’ contribution, Dr Humayun shared the results immediately with the reporting individual, regardless of their location.

The information filled a gap for physicians who wanted to know why their patients were unwell, and it provided a new level of detail on the virus’ whereabouts. Word got around and soon, more and more doctors started sending in their AFP patients’ stool samples. As the practice grew, processes needed to be formalized: Dr Humayun and his colleagues had to ensure stool samples were reaching them in the right conditions for testing, which led to the establishment of a set of criteria and standard operating procedures around the transportation of stool samples – something known today as the reverse cold chain.

The dawn of AFP surveillance in Pakistan

This new system unveiled the dawn of an era of detailed, systematic surveillance for AFP, the most common, tell-tale symptom of poliovirus infection. That it grew out of mutual trust and collaboration with focal points in the community reaffirmed Dr Humayun’s belief, “If you offer service to the community, the community serves you.”

Site selection during establishment of polio environmental surveillance in Pakistan. © WHO/EMRO

In their quest to fill in gaps in disease surveillance and formalize a practice of testing samples from AFP patients, Dr Humayun and his colleagues succeeded in establishing the first poliovirus laboratory in Pakistan.

Dr Hamid Jafari, WHO Polio Director for the Eastern Mediterranean Region, says this contribution to eradication cannot be  overstated.

“Dr Humayun has sowed the seeds of AFP surveillance in Pakistan all through his own initiative and drive and nurtured and supported the lab network in the Eastern Mediterranean Region; as one of the architects of the regional and global laboratory network, he has contributed to building a great legacy.”

Advancing the Region’s work

Over the intervening decades, Dr Humayun has helped the Region’s laboratory network grow in size and skill, bringing in new practices such as testing for poliovirus in sewage water (environmental surveillance) and then harnessing this new practice to test for the presence of other diseases – most recently, COVID-19. He also took the practice out of the Eastern Mediterranean Region and into the African Region, supporting the polio laboratory in Nigeria to introduce environmental surveillance.

Collecting the first sample for polio environmental surveillance while training health workers, Nigeria. © WHO

Testing for and tracking the virus in stool samples and sewage water enabled the programme to identify different types of poliovirus, and by building on this, a practice was developed to conduct nucleotide sequencing, which provides a fuller picture of viruses’ lineage and allows scientists to identify which family any given poliovirus belongs to. Dr Humayun attributes these accomplishments to laboratory staff, who strengthened their own capacity to diagnose polio without waiting for results from other global specialized laboratories.

Supporting others to grow

Since he joined WHO’s Eastern Mediterranean Region in February 2002, Dr Humayun has served in several capacities – as Scientist Virologist, Regional Advisor for Public Health Laboratories, and finally as the Coordinator for the Region’s Poliovirus surveillance, Laboratory support and Data management. He credits two mentors in particular for inspiring his career – the late Dr Helmy Wahdan, former Polio Director for WHO’s Eastern Mediterranean Region, and Dr Olen Kew, a poliovirus scientist – and, over the course of his career, has tried to pay that inspiration forwards.

“Dr Humayun has mentored and supported young scientists and laboratory specialists across the Region to advance their skills and careers,” said Dr Nima Saeed Abid, WHO Representative for Sudan. “He has been a true leader in his field.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Dr Humayun believes one of the keys to eradicating polio lies not in the lab, but in people: in empowering and engaging the workforce by incentivizing them with education, training and promotion.

On the occasion of his retirement in May 2023, Dr Humayun expressed gratitude that he was able to witness and contribute to two important milestones: the eradication of wild poliovirus types 2 and 3.

And when the eradication of WPV1 does happen, he says, “I will be cheering from the sidelines, alongside so many other vital contributors to the programme’s legacy.”

©WHO

Global leaders and stakeholders have been unanimously declaring their solidarity to achieving a lasting world free of all forms of polioviruses.

Convening this week at the World Health Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland, Ministers of Health from around the globe evaluated the unique epidemiological opportunity which currently exists, in particular in eradicating all remaining chains of endemic wild poliovirus in a handful of districts of just two countries – Pakistan and Afghanistan.  As a record number of Member States and civil society partners took to the floor, key to success, all experts agreed, must be on adapting operations and reaching remaining un- or under-immunized children in just seven subnational most consequential geographies, with collectively account for 90% of all new polio cases, including in a gender-equitable and integrated manner.  To ensure lasting success, delegates urged country-specific solutions for polio transition.  In response to both a wild poliovirus outbreak in south-eastern Africa and multi-country circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus outbreaks, extraordinary special sessions were led by WHO and its Regional Office for Africa between affected Member States and partners, to discuss concrete steps to stopping all outbreaks affecting the Region by end of year.

The World Health Assembly comes on the heels of last week’s G7 Leaders and G7 Health Ministers meetings in Japan, where both meetings highlighted the urgent need to ensure a world free of polio can be rapidly achieved. Next week, Rotarians from around the world are convening at the Rotary International Convention in Melbourne, Australia, to ensure civil society support for the effort will go hand-in-hand with public sector engagement.

Speaking on behalf of both Pakistan and the entire Eastern Mediterranean, Mr A.Q. Patel, Pakistan Federal Minister for National Health Services, Regulations and Coordination, said:  “We are in the final leg of eradication and we are doing everything we have to do to achieve success.  The virus is restricted to its smallest-ever geographical footprint, and the (polio) programmes in both Pakistan and Afghanistan continue to vastly expand their hunt for the virus and mount robust campaigns to reach all children, not just with polio vaccine, but indeed other antigens as well.  We could not have come this far without the strong support and goodwill of all Member States, however there is still more to be done at the heart of all our work, and for the future of all generations of children.  We need continued and sustained financial and political support from all Member States and partners, in order to give every child, no matter where they live, the promise of a polio-free world.”

H.E. Dr Hanan Mohammad Al-Kuwari, Minister of Public Health of Qatar, and Co-Chair of the Eastern Mediterranean Regional Subcommittee for Polio Eradication and Outbreaks, commented:  “In our Region, we have made significant progress in both containing the spread of wild poliovirus and closing outbreaks of vaccine variant polio.  Afghanistan and Pakistan have restricted the virus to the smallest geographical footprint in history and are now doubling up efforts to fully interrupt the remaining transmission.  The engines fueling this progress are manifold, but the two most powerful, and the two I truly believe will get us across the line, are improved immunity and better surveillance. We are reaching and vaccinating more children, more often, and we are using the most sensitive and robust surveillance measures in history to ensure that if the virus is there, we are not missing it.  Excellencies, partners and colleagues, I ask this as clearly as I can: Stay the course. Dig deep to do what needs to be done. Stand with us and be part of history.”

Noting the global commitments being made, Jean-Luc Perrin, Rotary International’s Representative to the United Nations in Geneva, told the global health community at the Assembly:  “Polio eradication is a rare example of enduring, truly global collaboration toward a goal whose achievement will benefit all nations in perpetuity, while contributing toward broader global health priorities.  We cannot take progress or possible victory for granted. Let us make collective history and End Polio Now!”

In conclusion: global leaders continue to note the very real window of opportunity for success this year, but that this window will not remain open for long.  The virus will again gain in strength. Only collective and global collaboration will result in ultimate success, and delegates and leaders urge all stakeholders to keep the focus firmly on one overriding objective:  reaching remaining un- or under-vaccinated children in the most consequential geographies.  A collective responsibility, but if achieved, will result in success in 2023.

Additional quotes from the World Health Assembly:

“WHO and our partners remain steadfastly committed to finishing the job of consigning polio to history.  Last year, three million children previously inaccessible in Afghanistan received polio vaccines for the first time.  And in October, donors pledged US$2.6 billion to support the push for eradication.  At the same time, as part of the polio transition, more than 50 countries have integrated polio assets to support immunization, disease detection and emergency response.  We must make sure that the significant investments in polio eradication do not die with polio, but are used to build the health systems to deliver the services that these communities so badly need.”- Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General, World Health Organization

“Wild poliovirus transmission has been cornered to the smallest ever geographic locations in the Eastern Region of Afghanistan and seven districts in southern part of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan.  However, the last 100-metre dash presents its own challenges and we must do all we can to achieve success.” Dr Hamid Jafari, Director for Polio Eradication for the Eastern Mediterranean, on behalf of Dr Ahmed Al-Mandhari, Regional Director, World Health Organization Eastern Mediterranean Region

“The African Region, which was certified free of wild poliovirus in 2020, has set itself the objective of stopping the transmission of all types of 2 polioviruses by the end of 2023 and integrating polio assets into activities that strengthen broader disease surveillance. It is also deploying integrated public health teams to respond to other emergencies, building on experiences from past poliovirus outbreaks and leveraging the polio network and infrastructure for response activities.” – Delegation of Burkina Faso, speaking on behalf of the entire African Region.

Islamabad – An announcement over a loudspeaker from the mosque captures the attention of parents and their children. The voice announces that a polio campaign is taking place in the settlement and vaccinators will be coming to give two drops to children under five. Eight teams of two vaccinators each are already on their way, each starting their day from the farthest house in the community and making their way to the center.

In January, when Pakistan detected a positive wild poliovirus from a sewage sample with genetic links to the virus circulating in Afghanistan, the polio teams jointly conducted a detailed epidemiological investigation to trace the routes of virus movement and identify infected populations. In a matter of weeks, a response was planned and implemented, vaccinating around 6.37 million children from 13 – 17 February. In this article we take you to an Afghan refugee settlement in Islamabad, one of the 30 districts that were covered partially and where the outbreak response focused on mobile and cross-border populations.

The story looks at three important components of a campaign: vaccinators, vaccines and tally sheets.

Vaccinators: the backbone of programme

“Who is there”, asks a man from inside the house, in Pushto.

“Polio team,” responds Salma who speaks Pushto. “We are here to give polio drops. Do you have children under five at home?”

Polio vaccinators. © WHO/EMRO

A tall man with a three-year-old boy in his arms, opens the door and welcomes the two vaccinators. Salma introduces herself and her team member Amina and asks the father if either of their children had received polio drops that day. The father confirms that in this round, his children did not receive any polio drops.

“Can I give them the polio drops?”, asks Salma.

The father responded back energetically, “Of course, you can! I want my child to grow up healthy!”

This is when Salma opens the blue box. Inside it are ice packs and vials of oral polio vaccine. She talks to the little daughter and asks her to open her mouth and gives her two drops from the vial.

After giving the drops, she marks the girl’s little finger. “You can show this incase anyone asks if you got the polio drops.”

Amina, on the other hand, fills out the tally sheet that she will later submit to her supervisor. If this information is incorrect, it can impact the overall operational coverage data for the campaign.

On leaving the house, Amina takes out her chalk and marks the door of the house with key information that will mention what day they visited, the number of children under five in the house and if there was any child with symptoms of acute flaccid paralysis.

One house done, now on to the next one.

Vaccines: two drops for every child 

“It is not always this straightforward,” says Amina. “Sometimes parents are skeptical about the vaccine and don’t want us to vaccinate their children. I often take the drops myself to show them how safe the vaccines are. When they see me taking these drops, it helps us build confidence with them.”

The polio programme has a long history of systematically listening to community concerns and addressing them, often engaging influencers such as religious leaders, to underscore the safety and efficacy of polio vaccines. This has helped address vaccine hesitancy and reached more children, building their immunity against this debilitating disease. At this settlement, occasional announcements were made through the mosque, informing people that a polio campaign was taking place and encouraging them to vaccinate their children. The result of these efforts has helped the programme significantly reduce the number of refusals across the country.

The blue box Amina carries with her has a large red “End Polio” sticker and it can carry up to 20 vaccine vials, nestled between the ice packs. Each vial contains 20 doses. She pays special attention to the box making sure the temperature is always maintained and the vaccines are kept out of direct sunlight. Vials that have been used, those that are unused and the ones in use are all kept in separate bags in the cold box.

Tally Sheets: supporting real-time corrective actions

The third important piece of a polio campaign is the tally sheet. In rudimentary terms, it is a piece of paper with many tiny boxes that deliver a telling story of number and ages of children, those who were vaccinated, those who were missed, location where the campaign is taking place and number of doses delivered. In case of any refusals, the vaccinator mentions the reason for refusal at the back of the tally sheet. It tells how well an area has been covered and the remaining gaps.

Markings on a house entrance after visitation by polio vaccinators. © WHO/EMRO

The authenticity of this data is a crucial component of operational coverage. It allows supervisors to identify gaps, present progress and advise corrective actions for vaccination teams. Each evening, this data is used to measure the campaign’s operational coverage.

In one of the houses where the vaccinators entered, the mother mentioned that the child had already been vaccinated. However,  no finger of the child was marked , while the others each had a blue mark on their pinky finger. Taking no chances, the vaccinator took out the vial and gave the child drops and then marked the finger. The tally sheet cannot be marked unless a child has been vaccinated and finger-marked.

Getting past the finish line

Up until April, Pakistan has conducted four polio vaccination campaigns. With the support of 390,000 polio workers, almost 43 million children under-five were vaccinated during a five-day nationwide vaccination campaign. There are multiple campaigns planned for the year ahead, requiring hours of strategic and evidence-based planning led by the national and provincial emergency operations centres.

Leaving nothing to chance during this last 100 meter dash towards eradication, the programme has also started implementing innovative interventions, such as the nomad population mapping and vaccination of high-risk mobile populations, engaging public health students for monitoring campaigns through the Lot Quality Assurance Sampling survey and the co-design initiative that engages women polio workers to develop solutions for improving campaigns and identifying potential livelihood opportunities for them in the future.

For Amina and Salma, the conclusion of the February round meant that children under five had received the vaccine to build strong immunity against the poliovirus. However, the journey to eradication continues. After a short break, the programme will begin working on validating the next set of microplans. All of this work is essential to ensure that the virus really finds no place left to hide and no child left to paralyze.

By Rimsha Qureshi,
Communications Officer, GPEI Hub Amman

Islamabad – As he rode his motorbike out of the relative safety of Bannu city on a September morning, Danyal Sikandri was nervous. It was his first day on a new assignment, and he was riding out into the district outskirts with colleague Yasir Shah in search of a reclusive group of people – nomads.

Their task was to find nomadic settlements and vaccinate the children there against polio and other vaccine-preventable diseases. Sikandri has been involved with the Pakistan Polio Eradication Programme since 2019, first as vaccinator and then area in-charge. Therefore, he was no stranger to interacting with people. But with this assignment, he didn’t know what to expect, since he would be travelling long distances to find people who might not speak the same language, might be unwelcoming or worse, he could end up in an area which may not be secure.

After travelling for about 36 kilometers, the team found a nomadic settlement in Domel. A group of families clustered together in makeshift tents made of plastic sheets and cloth. Sikandri approached the elders and explained why they were there. The nomads, who had come from Afghanistan and were temporarily camped in Domel, warmly welcomed the vaccinators in their midst.

As Sikandri vaccinated 14 children in the camp that day, his nervousness dissipated, and a resolve set in – to bring life-saving vaccines to as many nomadic children as he could.

“When I met them, I saw how different their lifestyle is, since they are constantly on the move and far from health facilities,” says Sikandri. “They want to protect their children from diseases too, so they are happy to see us. They tell us that it is the first time that vaccinators have come to their tents to vaccinate their children.”

Sikandri is one half of a two-member special mobile team which works under Pakistan Polio Programme’s latest initiative to reach segments of the population with polio and essential vaccines, which they would otherwise not have access to. The nomad vaccination initiative was launched in September 2022 in the seven endemic districts of southern Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and expanded to four districts of Punjab neighboring these districts in October. The initiative was further expanded to include more districts from Punjab in January and Balochistan in early March. A total of 80 mobile teams in 22 districts have been deployed so far to reach nomadic children.

“With this initiative, we are filling a crucial gap. In the past, we were vaccinating children on the move, in buses, on train stations and other transit points, but the children that were being left out were from nomadic populations. This initiative is a product of extensive research, where we mapped out population movements and based on that information, made mobile vaccination teams to reach nomadic children with polio as well as all essential immunization necessary for their health and safety,” said Dr Zainul Abedin Khan, the National Team Lead for WHO’s Polio Operations in Pakistan.

“This is an excellent initiative of the Government of Pakistan, with support of polio partners, to protect children who had never been vaccinated before. This initiative will keep expanding based on the movement patterns. With this, we hope that population immunity is increased, and poliovirus is interrupted permanently,” he added.

“They want to protect their children from diseases too, so they are happy to see us. They tell us that it is the first time that vaccinators have come to their tents to vaccinate their children.”

Since nomads are highly mobile, the children in these communities are missed during routine vaccination campaigns or even at transit vaccination sites because they may not be passing through formal routes. This means their immunity remains weak, they are vulnerable to disease and can potentially transmit poliovirus as they travel across country and district borders.

In 2022, the program conducted a comprehensive survey of nomadic movement patterns in February and March in 14 districts of KP, Punjab and Balochistan. The survey found that nomadic movement begins in southern KP in September and ends in March, with the nomads setting up temporary camps as they pass through various districts.

“It is difficult for our door-to-door vaccination teams to reach them since a majority of nomads live on district borders or peripheries and it is not even known when they are coming,” said Muhammad Asif Javaid, who leads the program’s High-Risk and Mobile Population Unit (HRMU) and is spearheading this initiative. “They are frequently on the move, staying in places temporarily, never settling, so they miss the opportunity to receive polio and routine immunization.”

In the first phase of implementation, two special mobile teams – consisting of a trained vaccinator and a team assistant – were deployed in each of the seven districts of southern KP and four districts of Punjab. Subsequently, the project was expanded to cover 22 districts of the country.

Union council staff collect data on nomads visiting their areas. This information along with weekly micro-plans and targets are provided to vaccinators, who travel across their assigned UCs to visit these settlements. They provide polio and other essential vaccinations to children in the camps and issue vaccination cards to the families to ensure the data remains on record.

Javaid said that these teams are also helping with surveillance for cases of acute flaccid paralysis (AFP) by asking families and looking for any children who might have AFP, and then ensuring that it is reported to relevant authorities for further testing.

As of March 31, more than 114,600 children under the age of five had received the oral polio vaccine, 71,206 had received the inactivated polio vaccine, while nearly 20,000 routine immunization antigens have been administered to eligible children, under this initiative.

“Currently the program is actively working to vaccinate chronically missed children and is focusing on reaching missed populations rather than prioritizing geography alone,” Dr Zainul Abedin Khan added.

The task is challenging for vaccinators, who travel many kilometers out of urban centers to find nomadic settlements. They might run out of fuel, the settlement might have packed up and left by the time they arrive, or they may encounter hostility, but the vaccinators take it in their stride, happy to be safeguarding children’s futures.

For Sikandri, the experience has been rewarding. He has seen areas of his native district now that he had never seen before, and he feels his communication skills have improved since he began working on this project.

“We have received a lot of love from these people. When we vaccinate their children, they are thankful and pray for us. It feels good that people like them and their children are also being taken care of,” said Sikandri.

By Suzanna Masih,
Communications Officer, WHO Pakistan (Video by NEOC)

FATEHPUR – In Fatehpur, any mention of the month of August is followed by the word ‘qayamat’.

In Urdu, qayamat is used to express what the end of the world would look like. It could be a physical or metaphorical experience and is often used to describe a feeling, a feeling of utter devastation and destruction, when all is reduced to nothingness.

The world really did seem to end for the people here in Fatehpur, Rajanpur district, when the monsoons, once a celebrated time of the year in Pakistan, brought with them the climate’s wrath. Fatehpur was among the 90 calamity-hit districts in the country after the super floods and rains left a third of Pakistan under water and affected one in seven people in the country of over 220 million.

“We only had 25 minutes to leave the house. All I did was lock the door and run with my family after we heard the announcements to evacuate,” says Sughra Javed, a Lady Health Vaccinator, part of the polio immunization campaign.

But locks could provide little protection from the scale of the disaster that was to come. Shahida left for her mother’s house and came back two weeks later, only to find three-feet-deep water all around and the belongings she had gathered for years, old cotton blankets, a TV set, clothes folded in trunks, all gone.

There was little time here to process this loss. Around a week later, the health workers were back on the field serving at health camps that began in late August, nearly 10 days after Rajanpur experienced its worst floods in history.

 “I would be working, vaccinating, but it was so difficult to focus. Seeing the broken structure of my house made me want to run away when I was home, and when in the field at work, it was unbearable to see so many people suffering. One after the other, house after house was destroyed,” says Nasreen Faiz, who was among polio team members part of the September campaign.

“My entire village was finished. The crops were gone, the homes were gone, the animals were dead. But at least we had work, I would keep thinking of the people who didn’t even have work,” she adds.

Rajanpur was among districts where the nationwide immunization campaign was suspended as the calamity unfolded. But polio work continued a month after, in between the destroyed cotton crops and cracked land, still too soft to step on.

For Dr. Shahzad Baig, the Coordinator of the National Emergency Operations Centre (NEOC), it was painful to witness his country experience a humanitarian crisis of this scale.  “In the Polio Program, we are all part of one large family. When the floods came, it felt like I was sitting at a distance in Islamabad and witnessing my family members suffer. The very first thing I wanted us to do as a program was to find a way to support our people. On every forum, I would request for help to rebuild the homes of our frontline workers.”

The process of assessing the damage was an arduous one. There are over 350,000 health workers part of the program and to identify the people impacted as well as the extent of their loss, was challenging.

Dr Altaf Bosan, the National Technical Focal Person, explains the challenges of determining the impact of the floods with a workforce as large as that of the polio program.

“It was really a very difficult exercise. We went through multiple layers of verification to determine the number of people affected by the floods. This was done at three levels: through the Emergency Operation Centres at the district and province, and the NEOC,” says Dr Bosan.

Through a comprehensive assessment, the Polio Program determined that more than 12,500 polio workers across the country were affected, and funds were secured for the frontline workers who suffered full or partial damage to their homes. In total, cheques worth Rs216 million have been distributed among 10,500 polio workers so far.

On the first working day of the new year, January 2, Mr. Abdul Qadir Patel, the Federal Health Minister handed over cheques to the Provincial Coordinators of the Emergency Operations Centres (EOC). In Sindh, the process was completed at the end of last year following an inauguration by the Health Minister in Thatta district.

“I really commend the team working on it. It really was not an easy task to manage cheques for each individual and deliver them across the country,” Dr Bosan adds.

Nasreen has also received the cheque for financial support as have some of her other colleagues. It is a good time to receive it, she says, because “the winter is too harsh and the need for rebuilding so much greater.”

“I don’t know what can really compensate for their loss, if anything,” says Dr Baig. “Our purpose was to help support as much as we possibly could.”

By Zehra Abid,
Communications Officer, WHO Pakistan

Addressing social norms

Dr Amira Zaghloul ©WHO/Pakistan

Giza, Egypt, is home to the ancient world-renowned pyramids and a medical marvel of the modern age — the accredited Polio Regional Reference Laboratory (RRL) at the Egyptian Holding Company for Biological Products and Vaccines (VACSERA). Director of the polio regional reference laboratory,

Amira Zaghloul oversees five different departments, working closely with her 25-member team. They regularly conduct poliovirus diagnostic tests on stool samples obtained from children as well as sewage samples from Egypt. Additionally, they carry out sequencing of samples that have been identified as positive for polio in Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Sudan, and Syria, which determines if the polioviruses confirmed are related to any other ones. Their goal is to meet tight deadlines, to swiftly respond to any detection of the poliovirus.

Like her counterparts across the Region, Ms Zaghloul and her colleagues rely on the latest laboratory and digital technology. With support from partners, they regularly upgrade their technology and skills to ensure the shortest possible time between sample collection and churning out results. Soon, for example, Ms Zaghloul and her team will acquire the next generation of sequencing technology – that will help test the entire genome of a virus, or genetic materials that make up a virus, and identify any mutations. This will also help to determine the origin of detected polioviruses, and track epidemiological patterns of spread.

Her work doesn’t come without challenges though. When she first took on this role, Ms Zaghloul faced negative social perceptions of being a female leader of a mixed team of men and women. To address this, Ms Zaghloul introduced rules and regulations that apply to all, regardless of age and gender.

People working in health should exemplify a spirit of perseverance, devotion, hope and ambition – regardless of their gender – she emphasizes.

Negotiating to receive samples for polio tests

Dr Hanan Al Kindi ©WHO/Pakistan
Dr Hanan Al Kindi ©WHO/Pakistan

When Dr Hanan Al Kindi finally settled on what to study − over virology, medicine or business — she had no idea she would need negotiation skills in her job. As the head of nine polio and measles laboratory departments that test samples from Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Yemen for polioviruses, Dr Al Kindi ensures everything runs like clockwork.

At times, this involves thinking out of the box. After noting huge time lags in the delivery of stool samples – used to test for polioviruses – from Yemen to Oman, Dr Al Kindi rolled up her sleeves and got to action. She learnt that after driving through mountains and deserts to reach Oman’s borders, the refrigerated trucks that transport stool samples were kept at the border for hours of inspection. Dr Al Kindi and her team got the contacts of officials at the border and invited them over for a chat.

Her determined negotiation skills and ability to read the room – to understand when peripheral stakeholders such as officials at the border and couriers needed more context about the laboratory’s role in saving children from polio — eventually helped reduce the red tape at the border. This means Dr Al Kindi and her team can test for polioviruses and turn over their results to the polio programme in Yemen in less time than before. This steers timely and appropriate outbreak response activities, including polio immunization campaigns to protect children from polio.

Working in an equitable environment

Dr Nayab Mahmood ©WHO/Pakistan

Dr Nayab Mahmood plays a vital role in ensuring samples are tested for poliovirus as swiftly as possible for timely interventions in Afghanistan and Pakistan – the only two countries left with naturally occurring poliovirus.

Dr Mahmood is a virologist serving the polio programme of the Regional Reference Polio Laboratory at Pakistan’s National Institutes of Health in Islamabad. Her role involves intricate technical procedures, including molecular diagnostics, and genetic sequencing of the poliovirus genome. This work helps to determine how wild polioviruses are spreading across both endemic countries.

Being part of an emergency programme means that Dr Mahmood and her colleagues need to be available 24 hours a day – a pace that is impossible to maintain without feeling an impact in one’s personal life. She feels that the best way to maintain a work-life balance is for each member of a team to communicate their needs with each other, which further helps the programme’s leaders like her to shape policies and programmes that enable a good work-life balance.

Grateful that she hasn’t had to challenge any stereotypes related to gender dynamics in her role,
Dr Mahmood credits this to directives in her workplace that support gender equality, and to the culture of her individual team. These attributes have blended to create an equitable environment where everyone can use their abilities.

Sharing rare, much-needed skills

Professor Henda Triki ©WHO/Pakistan

Chief of the Laboratory of Clinical Virology in the Pasteur Institute of Tunis, Professor Henda Triki makes a concerted effort to share her knowledge with others. Her altruistic spirit goes beyond her laboratory, especially as her specialty of work is still rare in North Africa: She teaches virology at the Faculty of Medicine of Tunis, and constantly keeps an eye on how best to upgrade her team’s skills and technology at work.

Professor Henda Professor Triki has a collaborative leadership style at work, which results in her sharing her team-building skills with her colleagues – which has helped them address challenges many times before, including during the COVID-19 pandemic. Amidst the chaos and anxiety during the pandemic, Professor Triki and her team had strong moments of solidarity and collaborative work.

Professor Triki wants her fellow female colleagues to be proud of working for the polio eradication programme, as it offers great opportunities. It has allowed women to distinguish themselves from others by acquiring skills that other laboratories do not have. She is pleased to note now that there are many women who are the face of specialized laboratory work in the Eastern Mediterranean Region.

This year, the UN’s theme for International Women’s Day is ‘DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality’.

Originally published here.

A moderator speaks in a workshop for the female frontline workers initiative. © BMGF/Sang-hee Min

ISLAMABAD – Poultry farming, EPI technicians, creative writing, midwifery, embroidery, online businesses: it’s a room filled with possibilities and dreams when women health workers come together to imagine their lives in a polio-free Pakistan.

These ambitions surface during the workshops the Pakistan Polio Programme initiated last year, as part of a unique project to actively listen to female frontline workers in the areas at highest risk for poliovirus transmission across the country.

The initiative used a bottom-up, data-informed approach to better understand the experiences of women on the frontlines and hear their ideas for how the programme can better support them to do their jobs safely and effectively. And came with a prior promise: leadership from all partners at the Emergency Operations Centres were to review – and implement – workable solutions.

This systematic listening process, which began in July 2022 and concluded last week, was done in two parts: First, an independent research company was brought on to conduct more than 2,600 randomized, anonymous surveys with polio frontline workers across Pakistan to understand their unique challenges and experiences in the field. After this, based on the results of these surveys, 14 workshops were designed to hear from women frontline workers themselves on what they think are the solutions to the challenges they face.

Female health workers from the polio endemic districts of Bannu, DI Khan, Lakki Marwat and Tank in southern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to the geographically challenging terrains of Chaman, Quetta and Killa Abdullah in Balochistan to Punjab in central Pakistan to Sindh in the south of the country to the capital city of Islamabad were brought together in this series of workshops.

Participants during the workshops. © BMGF/Sang-hee Min

The workshops were also moderated by a third party to allow for open and honest discussions, and carefully curated to create spaces where, for the first time, the women were the chief guests, they were the people who mattered most, while everyone else had one job: to listen.

“When you get respect, you get everything. It’s the first time that we have talked, and other people have listened,” says Fauzia Naseem, an Area-In-Charge from Chaman.

As each of the two-day workshops finished, there was excitement, energy and almost a sense of disbelief that hours had been dedicated to listening to them. “I’ve been here since 2017 and no one has ever really asked us what we think. Otherwise we are only told where to go and what to do. Today I feel like what we say matters,” says Samreen, a polio worker, from Tank.

“This is a very special project – and a very insightful one too. It offers us the opportunity to gain from the wealth of knowledge of the polio programme’s frontline staff. For the very first time, the people who actually do the work of delivering the vaccine to a child have been systematically asked how they think it should be done. We are currently looking into their suggested solutions and seeing which are implementable and can be taken forward,” said Dr Shahzad Baig, the Coordinator of the National Emergency Operations Centre in Islamabad.

“For many women, this is the first time they are together to just talk to each other, hear from each other, take a selfie and be in a space where they have the right to simple joys that they otherwise may not have access to. The workshops for women from southern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa were particularly special. These were held in Islamabad and for many women, this was the first time they had visited the country’s capital city. Their excitement and sheer joy was infectious. It lit up the room,” said Dr Atiya Abro, Deputy Director Ministry of National Health Services.

Moderators guide the participants during a workshop for the female frontline workers initiative. © BMGF/Sang-hee Min

 

The last session in all workshops was dedicated to listening and understanding the women’s diverse interests in other career pathways after polio, and what skills or support the workers felt would be needed for them to transition into these jobs in the future.

This initiative was coordinated by the Pakistan Polio Programme’s National Gender Group, comprised of representatives from the government and partner agencies including WHO, UNICEF, BMGF and N-STOP.

“Having the opportunity to listen and give center stage to these women has been a true privilege. It’s encouraging to see such strong commitment from Pakistan programme leadership to support these female health workers – not only in their work toward our collective goal of eradicating polio, but also to facilitate transitions into other potential livelihood opportunities in the future. We look forward to the next phases of this exciting initiative as well,” said Sang-Hee Min, Senior Programme Officer, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and member of the National Gender Group.

“Polio teams are a valuable asset to our country,” said Dr Baig. “It is very important to me that when we finish polio from Pakistan, we don’t just pack up and leave but utilize this incredible workforce. We build systems and create opportunities to serve the workforce, a majority of them women, and find some way, however small, in giving back to the people who have worked tirelessly to protect the children of our country.”

By Zehra Abid,
Communications Officer, WHO Pakistan

©WHO
©WHO

Acknowledging that our common goal is to attain ‘Health for All by All’, which is a call for solidarity and action among all stakeholders;

Noting the progress achieved globally in eradicating wild poliovirus transmission since 1988, with endemic wild poliovirus transmission restricted to just two countries – Afghanistan and Pakistan;

Recalling that 2023 is the target year for interrupting all remaining poliovirus transmission globally, as per the Global Polio Eradication Initiative Strategy 2022–2026: Delivering on a Promise;

Appreciating the recent, intensified efforts made by both Afghanistan and Pakistan, resulting in a unique epidemiological window of opportunity to achieve success in 2023, as characterized by:

the geographic restriction of wild poliovirus transmission in 2022 to eastern Afghanistan and a few districts of north-western Pakistan;

the absence of any wild poliovirus case since September 2022;

the significant decline in genetic biodiversity of wild poliovirus to just a single lineage in each country; and

the successful interruption of circulating vaccine-derived polioviruses;

Emphasizing that the opportunity to interrupt wild poliovirus transmission must be seized now, given the unprecedented epidemiological progress and the inherent risks of delays in stopping polio, which would likely result in resurgence of polio;

Underscoring the ongoing risk of  transmission of wild poliovirus, with detection of wild poliovirus from environmental samples in both countries since January 2023,  confirming cross-border transmission ;

Highlighting that the key to success lies in reaching remaining zero-dose children (children who are un- or under-immunized) with oral polio vaccine in the most consequential geographies,1  operating within a broader humanitarian emergency response, including increasing access to all populations in some areas;

Underscoring the importance and heroic work of health workers at the forefront in insecure settings, especially women, whose support and participation is critical to the eradication effort;

Recognizing the sustained commitment by leaders at all levels, notably by political leaders and law enforcement agencies, community and religious leaders, civil society, Global Polio Eradication Initiative partners, especially Rotary International, parents, caregivers and all health workers;

Recalling that the international spread of poliovirus constitutes a Public Health Emergency of International Concern under the International Health Regulations (2005);

Appreciating the support provided by the GPEI in responding to the devastating floods affecting Pakistan and the tragic earthquake affecting Afghanistan in 2022;

Appreciating the commitment of the United Arab Emirates through the initiative of His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of UAE, to promote and support polio eradication in Pakistan through the UAE Pakistan Assistance Programme;

Recognizing the longstanding support of donors like Rotary International and acknowledging the historical financial support of other Member States to the eradication effort, including the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar;

Appreciating and supporting the decision of the WHO Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean to formally grade all polio emergencies and to apply relevant emergency standard operating procedures to WHO operations to address polio emergencies;

We, Member States of the Regional Subcommittee for Polio Eradication and Outbreaks for the Eastern Mediterranean,

DECLARE THAT:

1. We will focus all efforts on reaching remaining missed children with oral polio vaccine, within a broader humanitarian response context in the remaining most consequential geography of eastern Afghanistan and in north-western Pakistan;

COMMIT TO:

2. Mobilizing all necessary engagement and support by all political, community and civil society leaders and sectors across the Region, to fully achieve interruption of wild poliovirus transmission in the Region;

3. Facilitating the necessary support to fully implement all aspects of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative Strategy 2022–2026, including by ensuring rapid detection of and response to any poliovirus from any source, and implementing high-quality outbreak response;

4. Fostering coordination with other public health efforts, to ensure closer integration in particular with routine immunization efforts;

REQUEST THAT:

5. The international development and humanitarian communities and donors strengthen their support for full implementation of the National Emergency Action Plans to Eradicate Polio in Afghanistan and Pakistan; and

6. The Regional Director continue his strong leadership and efforts to achieve a Region free of all polioviruses for good, including by advocating for all necessary financial and technical support, reviewing progress, planning corrective actions as necessary and regularly informing Member States of the aforementioned and of any further action required through the World Health Organization Executive Board, World Health Assembly and Regional Committee for the Eastern Mediterranean.

@WHO

PAKISTAN marked a historic moment for polio eradication a year ago. On Jan 27, 2022, for the first time, we clocked in a year without polio paralysing a child. There was a euphoric feeling that the country had finally turned a corner. The long battle to end this disease was thought to be close to an end. But the virus had other ideas.

Despite aggressive vaccination efforts, polio was surviving and continuing to spr­ead in a small area in southern KP. First det­ected only in sewage water, the virus then paralysed a 15-month boy in North Waziristan. It was the first case of polio in nearly 15 months. I was in Karachi with sev­eral members of our team when the news came. Although not surprising given the circulation detected in the environm­ent, it was heartbreaking to hear that an­other child in Pakistan would never walk again because of an easily preventable disease.

Emergency responses were immediately finalised. While preparing for the work ahead, memories took me back to Borno in Nigeria, a country where I spent a decade fighting polio. After the ‘last case’ of polio in Nigeria was reported in 2014, I started to check my phone every morning, relieved that another day had passed without the virus resurfacing. Typically, it takes three years without any poliovirus for a country to be declared polio-free. But in August 2016, 30 months after the last detection of the virus, a child from a security-compromised area of Borno was found paralysed by polio. As there was poor surveillance and no ability to vaccinate, the virus had found its hiding place. One paralysed child became three. And the outbreak brought Nigeria back to square one.

I knew that the case in North Waziristan was following a familiar pattern, but it was greatly challenging, nonetheless. The year 2022 was excruciatingly demanding. It was a year of feeling the weight of huge challenges, but moving on and choosing courage, commitment and hope every time.

We have aggressively responded to any outbreak in the country, restricting the virus to just seven districts in southern KP. Our virus surveillance network has nearly doubled. We have charted the movement patterns of nomads to reach children otherwise deprived of essential immunisation. We have launched a novel project that allows us to listen to hundreds of front-line women health workers and hear their recommendations for reaching the end goal. And we are consistently working towards improving overall healthcare in areas most at risk from polio.

Polio eradication has had remarkable sup­port and remained a priority in one of the hardest years for the country. The prime minister holds quarterly meetings on polio eradication, bringing provincial and federal leadership together. The federal health minister has visited different provinces to encourage and support provincial health ministries. There is uniform consensus and commitment across all poli­tical parties that Pakistan must win this battle against polio, and now is the time.

This commitment is there at every level, from federal health secretaries, chief secretaries and chief ministers, to the deputy commissioners directly overseeing implementation. The military and law enforcement have given the programme their absolute support, making immunisation possible in some of the hardest areas to reach, while global advocates for polio eradication, including Bill Gates and the regional directors of WHO and Unicef, have made polio eradication a top priority in their visits to the country.

We have begun 2023 with great hope and greater commitment. The first nationwide campaign was recently concluded. Despite rain, cold, snow and ice, polio workers carried on with inspirational dedication. They are the face of Pakistan’s sincerity, perseverance and hard work.

The six months ahead are crucial to eradication. This is the closest Pakistan has ever been to interrupting transmission. But the risk of the virus continuing to circulate in the seven districts of KP’s south, and the risk of it exploding beyond and bringing the virus back to polio-free areas, is real.

Polio eradication now needs a renewed countrywide sense of urgency. It needs to be important to all of us to see this virus vanquished. After three decades of the polio programme in Pakistan, there is understandable fatigue. But this is not the time to tire. This is the time to believe. A world free of polio was the birth of a dream. In countless countries at countless times, it has felt like an impossible dream — until it was possible and actually happened.

Over 99 per cent of the world has made this dream come true. And it will come true for our children too if we take this as a collective fight and finish the job. Now is the time to strengthen that resolve, to come together and make the end of polio possible.

Written by Shahzad Baig, Lead, Pakistan Polio Eradication Initiative.

This article was originally published in Dawn on January 27, 2023.

@WHO

In October 2022, the Technical Advisory Group (TAG) for Afghanistan and Pakistan met in Muscat, Oman, to conduct a thorough review of ongoing polio eradication efforts in the remaining polio endemic countries. During the 6-day meeting they also provided strategic technical guidance on steering efforts towards successful interruption of the poliovirus in both countries in 2023.

Polio programmes make significant progress, despite challenges

The TAG recognized the accomplishments of the polio programmes despite longstanding humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and unprecedented levels of flooding across Pakistan that affected almost 33 million people. The progress comes due to concerted efforts by all stakeholders across all levels, intense vaccination schedule, timely programmatic pivots to changing epidemiology and the full support of law enforcement and security agencies in implementation of polio vaccination campaigns.

Members noted the high level of sustained political commitment to polio in both countries. In Afghanistan, since the political transition, nationwide campaigns have allowed the polio programme access to almost 10 million children, 3.5 million of whom were previously inaccessible. In Pakistan, intensified vaccination activities and strategic approaches were used to reach missed children.

The TAG also acknowledged the strategic role played by the Emergency Operations Centres (EOCs) in strengthening coordination and providing programmatic oversight at the national and regional levels.

Promising epidemiological trends provide a window of opportunity

Remarkable improvements in epidemiology in Afghanistan and Pakistan provide a window of opportunity for interrupting transmission of wild poliovirus. In Pakistan, the virus is endemic only in the southern districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, and in Afghanistan both cases have been reported from the eastern region. However, no cross-border transmission was recorded in 2022.

In addition to the limited geographical spread, the biodiversity of the genetic clusters is also at an all-time low: down from 8 in 2020 to 2 in 2022 in Afghanistan and from 11 in 2020 to one in 2022 in Pakistan.

Moreover, there has been no detection of circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus type 2 (cVDPV2) in either country in the last year. The last cVDPV2 case in Afghanistan had onset of paralysis on 9 July 2021, and the last cVDPV2 case in Pakistan had onset of paralysis on 23 April 2021.

Given the promising epidemiological trends seen in 2022, the TAG noted the possibility of full interruption of polioviruses this year. However, for the 2 programmes to succeed, the TAG proposed major strategic shifts in categorization of risks based on the epidemiological trends. The group of experts’ recommendations include context-specific tactics and technical guidance on activities to prioritize until mid-2023, when the TAGs for Afghanistan and Pakistan will meet again.

This new categorization redefines and re-demarcates the endemic zones in Afghanistan and Pakistan from the outbreak districts and the rest of the country where it is important to maintain children’s immunity. Additionally, it identifies highly vulnerable and consequential areas that are an additional risk category for Pakistan, where historically core reservoirs may play a role in establishing circulation in an event of reinfection.

The TAG also endorsed the 2023 polio supplementary immunization activities’ calendars for Afghanistan and Pakistan and emphasized continued cross-border coordination between the 2 countries, particularly in the key corridors. Finally, the TAG encouraged the continued use of strategies to integrate gender and social behavioural change communication into the programme’s activities, to reach every last child.

To read the reports from the Technical Advisory Group meeting on Afghanistan and Pakistan, click here.

The site at Pezand Pana Dafter in Nangarhar province has produced three positive environmental samples since coming online in September. © WHO/Afghanistan 

The review team, comprising of experts including virologists and epidemiologists, visited Afghanistan in June, conducting a comprehensive nationwide assessment of the country’s polio surveillance system. Among their recommendations was the need to address gaps in environmental surveillance and expand the number of environmental surveillance sites in areas deemed high risk for polio, including the country’s east, southeast, south and west regions, to ensure any presence of the virus is quickly detected.

Afghanistan’s AFP surveillance system – monitoring for signs of Acute Flaccid Paralysis in children under 15 years of age – is complemented by environmental surveillance – the collection of sewage samples at designated sites to check for the presence of the virus in the community. Together, they enable the programme to detect where the virus may be circulating and, importantly, mount a timely response.

Following the review’s recommendations, three new environmental surveillance sites have now come online, bringing the total number of sites in Afghanistan to 32. One of those sites, at Pezand Pana Dafter in Nangarhar province has produced three positive environmental samples since coming online in September. The programme quickly mounted a response targeting 1.4 million children under 5 years of age in all four eastern provinces – Nangarhar, Kunar, Laghman and Nuristan.

“Surveillance is the eyes and ears of the polio programme, and environmental surveillance plays an important part in eradicating polio because it enables the programme to detect the presence of the virus,” says Dr. Khushhal Khan Zaman, who oversees polio surveillance for WHO Afghanistan. “Environmental surveillance tells us very plainly where transmission is likely happening.”

WHO guidelines stipulate that an environmental site be located in areas with substantial populations, and with flowing sewage water. In Afghanistan, sites are established in major cities and larger population centres with existing wastewater and drainage systems. Communities with mobile populations are also a focus. Samples are regularly taken and sent to a WHO-accredited polio laboratory for testing.

Afghanistan has made significant progress in interrupting transmission of the virus. From 56 children paralysed by WPV1 in 2020, so far this year there have been two cases, in Paktika and Kunar provinces. Seventeen positive environmental samples have been detected in 2022, all in the country’s east region.

Further environmental surveillance sites are planned as WHO Afghanistan continues to implement recommendations from the surveillance review.

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.