News Category: Broader benefits of the polio programme
The Health Ministers of the G20 countries, meeting in Rome, Italy, on 5-6 September 2021, recommitted to helping secure a lasting polio-free world once and for all. In their official communiqué, the Health Ministers said: “We re-affirm our commitment to eradicate polio… We note the critical role that adaptable surveillance capacity, like that found in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, has in the ability to reach vulnerable communities to prevent and respond to pandemics.”
An integral part of the new GPEI Strategy 2022-2026 is to ensure close coordination with broader public health efforts, to not only achieve a lasting world free of all polioviruses, but also one where the polio infrastructure will continue to benefit other public health emergencies long after the disease has been eradicated. Key to success, however, will be the continued support and engagement of the international development community, including by ensuring that previous pledges are fully and rapidly operationalized.
The GPEI also recognizes the critical role of women in the delivery of health services and has committed to ensuring their empowered engagement in polio eradication efforts in order to reach every last child.
25 August 2021 – “Poliovirus circulation does not stop during conflicts, it does not stop during emergencies. If anything, it makes children and families even more vulnerable by adding a layer of risk”, says a Polio Provincial Officer from Balkh province.
Despite risks and challenges due to the recent insecurity, the polio programme is staying and delivering for the children of Afghanistan. Our 315 staff and more than 70,000 polio health workers across the country remain firm in their resolve to eradicate polio. Their work ensures that critical polio activities continue while adapting to the rapidly changing situation and carry on even when hostility levels are high.
In 2021, one wild poliovirus type 1 (WPV1) and 43 circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus type 2 (cVDPV2) cases have been confirmed in Afghanistan. All cases have been reported in areas of the country that have for years been inaccessible for door-to-door vaccination campaigns, which left at least 3 million children repeatedly deprived of polio vaccination. Population displacement brought about by the current situation could further impact the programme’s access to children and increase immunity gaps against polio, triggering a rise in transmission. It is also feared that the mixing and movement of unvaccinated populations due to the upheaval faced by thousands of Afghans may spur polio transmission.
“We are working with all actors, to ensure there are no delays or disruptions to polio vaccination campaigns and overall routine immunization. Gains of the past twenty years cannot be lost. Children need immunization now, they must not bear the brunt of conflict and instability. We are calling for unimpeded access to all children,” says Dr. Dapeng Luo, WHO Representative in Afghanistan.
Pre-planning and resilience measures
While the current situation is a challenge, it is by no means the first the polio programme has faced. Using its wealth of knowledge from many years of operating in complex environments, the programme has invested in robust, pre-emptive contingency planning to be able to adapt and continue delivering. Regular monitoring of the security situation has allowed for nimble decision making.
The programme has moved swiftly to ensure safety and security of its staff. Its international staff footprint has been significantly reduced and vulnerable national staff and their dependants have been temporarily relocated to Kabul. Flexible working arrangements and salary advances have been provided to cover urgent needs of staff and polio health workers, who are the backbone of polio operations.
Around eighty percent of polio staff remain at their field locations and working to maintain essential polio services, supported remotely by colleagues who have needed to relocate.
“I am filled with pride for my team and their strong resolve, courage and passion. They are the heroes children of Afghanistan need right now. Thanks to their efforts, Acute Flaccid Paralysis (AFP) and environmental surveillance never stopped. Except for a few locations that experienced temporary disruptions last week, stool sample collection, visits to active health facilities, case investigation, the shipment of samples to Pakistan for laboratory testing, and the collection and transport of sewage samples for polio environmental surveillance remain unaffected. COVID-19 surveillance, which the polio programme has been supporting since last year, has also continued,” says Irfan Elahi Akbar, Polio Team Leader, WHO Afghanistan.
Polio vaccinations are continuing through permanent transit teams in most regions and at cross-border sites, including Friendship Gate (between Afghanistan and Pakistan).
After a brief pause, the National Emergency Operation Center is back up-and-running and undertaking planning needed to implement future campaigns. Discussions are ongoing with local authorities to safeguard the resumption of critical immunization activities across the country. The programme remains optimistic that polio vaccination campaigns planned for later this year can go ahead, however, is maintaining a flexible approach.
“The safety and security of staff and polio health workers is our top priority. Their commitment to ending polio is nothing short of inspirational. I stand ready to support their critical work in any way I can. I say this with absolute conviction: We will achieve a polio-free world,” said Dr. Hamid Jafari, Director of Polio Eradication, WHO Eastern Mediterranean Region.
The Heads of State of the G7 countries, at the annual meeting held in the UK on 11-13 June 2021, highlighted the need for increased global efforts to detect global public health threats, by building international surveillance on existing networks such as polio surveillance. In the context of COVID-19, and in their official communiqué, the G7 stated: “we support the establishment… of a global pandemic radar… that builds on existing detection systems such as the influenza and polio programmes.”
The unique value of the polio infrastructure in supporting COVID-19 response efforts was recently underscored by other global fora, including the World Health Assembly in May, and the G7 health ministers meeting in June.
An integral part of the new GPEI Strategy 2022-2026 is to ensure close coordination with broader public health efforts, to not only achieve a lasting world free of all polioviruses, but also one where the polio infrastructure will continue to benefit other public health emergencies long after the disease has been eradicated.
Key to success, however, will be the continued support and engagement of the international development community, including by ensuring that previous pledges are fully and rapidly operationalized.
Therese and Léonie reminded me of this hard truth in a recent visit to a hospital in N’Djaména, Chad. One is a newborn girl and the other is a veteran of the campaign to eradicate a human disease for only the second time in history –polio-.
As a Gender Champion for Polio Eradication, I have committed to supporting the global initiative to eradicate polio and the women who work tirelessly to protect children from lifelong paralysis. During my visit to Chad, I had the honour of giving two drops of life-saving oral polio vaccine to two newborns.
Protected from a disease which once struck millions of children, Therese now has a better chance of a healthy life. Thanks to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) – spearheaded by Rotary International, national governments, the World Health Organization, UNICEF, CDC, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance – she is one of more than 2.5 billion children who have received the oral polio vaccine, as the global polio caseload has been reduced by 99% since 1988.
But as I looked at Therese, I also wished that she would have a better chance not just for health, but also for opportunities to prosper. I thought of a recent WHO report I had read – Delivered by Women, Led by Men – which observed that women make up 70% of the global health workforce but hold only 25% of senior roles – a situation that is no different for the polio program. Would Therese’s future reflect that disparity?
I found both frustration and hope in answer to my question when I listened to Ms. Léonie Ngaordoum, the woman responsible for the campaign which brought the vaccine to Therese.
Léonie is head of vaccine operations for Chad’s immunization programme. It is women like her who have brought us this far in the long fight against polio. It is women like her who have gone the extra mile to keep their countries safe when, in 2020, the polio programme faced unprecedented challenges in the face of a new pandemic- COVID-19.
Her journey to a senior public health position in Chad has been difficult. Driven to remote areas on dangerous roads to oversee vaccination campaigns, she has twice suffered accidents, one of which left her with severe spinal injuries. She has faced gender discrimination, countered vaccine misinformation, convinced vaccine sceptics, and stayed the course despite the severe strain of COVID-19, and struggling for respect and recognition in a male-dominated environment.
Today she has a clear vision to share: “I speak about vaccination as if it were a vocation…the program change needed to achieve polio eradication is to empower enough women.” Léonie’s experience highlights the necessity of increasing senior roles among women in the health workforce and involving them in policy decisions.
Women like her frequently operate in dangerous and conflict-affected areas, putting their own personal safety at risk – all in efforts to protect communities from deadly diseases. Women have a greater level of trust with other women and thus are able to enter households and have interactions with mothers and children necessary to deliver the polio vaccine. And this way they can also provide other services, such as health education, antenatal care, routine immunization, and maternal health.
The knowledge and skills gained by this workforce are already being deployed against COVID-19, in surveillance, contact tracing, and raising public awareness. Indeed, more than 50 percent of the time spent by GPEI health workers is already dedicated to diseases and threats beyond polio. It’s clear that the future of public health is inextricably linked to the status of women. Their heroic actions provide nothing less than a blueprint for the future of disease prevention. The Resolution on “Women, girls and the response to COVID-19”, adopted last year by the UN General Assembly, should play a key role when addressing these challenges and the specific needs of women and girls in conflict situations.
The centrality of women to the success of public health projects has for too long gone unrecognised, and must be formalized. That is why today, on International Women’s Day, we must pay tribute to the tremendous contribution of women like Léonie around the world in protecting their communities from deadly diseases such as polio. But at the same time, thinking of the world in which Therese will come of age, we need to commit to empower every woman and girl. It will not only make for a more just world – but a healthier one too.
PN: President Knaack, thank you for taking the time to speak to us. A little more than a year into the global COVID-19 pandemic, what is your take on the current situation, also with a view of the global effort to eradicate polio?
HK: There are many interesting lessons we learned over the past 12 months. The first is the value of strong health systems, which perhaps in countries like mine – Germany – we have over the past decades taken for granted. But we have seen how important strong health systems are to a functional society, and how fragile that society is if those systems are at risk of collapse. In terms of PolioPlus, of course, the reality is that it is precisely children who live in areas with poor health systems who are most at risk of contracting diseases such as polio. So everything must be done to strengthen health systems systematically, everywhere, to help prevent any disease.
The second lesson is the value of scientific knowledge. COVID-19 is of course a new pathogen affecting the world, and there remain many unanswered questions. How does it really transmit? Who and where are the primary transmittors? How significant and widespread are asymptomatic (meaning undetected) infections and what role do they play in the pandemic? And most importantly, how best to protect our populations, with a minimum impact on everyday life? These are precisely the same questions that were posed about polio in the 1950s. People felt the same fear back then about polio, as we do now about COVID. Polio would indiscriminately hit communities, seemingly without rhyme or reason. Parents would send their children to school in the morning, and they would be stricken by polio later that same day. Lack of knowledge is what is so terrifying about the COVID-19 pandemic. It also means we are to a large degree unable to really target strategies in the most effective way. What polio has shown us is the true value of scientific knowledge. We know how polio transmits, where it is circulating, who is most at risk, and most importantly, we have the tools and the knowledge to protect our populations. This knowledge enables us to target our eradication strategies in the most effective manner, and the result is that the disease has been beaten back over the past few decades to just two endemic countries worldwide. Most recently, Africa was certified as free of all wild polioviruses, a tremendous achievement which could not have been possible without scientific knowledge guiding us. So while we grapple for answers with COVID, for polio eradication, we must now focus entirely on operational implementation. If we optimize implementation, success will follow.
And the third lesson is perhaps the most important: we cannot indefinitely sustain the effort to eradicate polio. We have been on the ‘final stretch’ for several years now. Tantalizingly close to global eradication, but still falling one percent short. In 2020, we saw tremendous disruptions to our operations due to COVID-19. We never know when the next COVID-19 will come along, to again disrupt everything. Last year, the polio program came away with a very serious black eye, so to speak. But we have the opportunity to come back stronger. We must now capitalize on it. We know what we need to do to finish polio. We must now finish the job. We must all recommit and redouble our efforts. If we do that, we will give the world one less infectious disease to worry about once and for all.
PN: You recently called on the Rotary network worldwide to use its experiences from PolioPlus in supporting the COVID-19 response. Could you elaborate on that?
HK: We have a global network of more than 1.2 million volunteers worldwide. This network has been consistently and systematically utilized to help engage everyone from heads of state to mothers in the most remote areas of rural India for polio eradication. We have helped secure vaccine supply and distribution, and increased trust in vaccines among communities. In the process, we have learned many lessons on what it takes to address a public health threat and these same lessons now should be applied to the COVID-19 response, especially as vaccines are now starting to be rolled out. That is why I thought it was important to call on our membership network to use their experiences and apply it to the COVID-19 response.
PN: What has been the reaction so far?
HK: Overwhelmingly supportive, I would say. As an example, in Germany, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria and other countries in Europe, Rotarians are encouraging active participation of the provided vaccination service. And because COVID vaccination is provided free of charge, vaccinated individuals are encouraged to instead donate the cost of what this vaccine would have cost them – approximately US$25 – to PolioPlus. This has a dual benefit: they are protected from COVID and contributing to the global response, and they are ensuring children are also protected against polio, critically important now as the COVID-pandemic has significantly disrupted health services and an estimated more than 80 million children worldwide are at increased risk of diseases such as polio.
PN: And from what we understand, the Rotary PolioPlus network of National PolioPlus Committees has in any event been supporting global pandemic response over the past 12 months already, is that correct?
HK: The ‘Plus’ in PolioPlus has always stood for the fact that we are eradicating polio, but doing it in such a way that we are in fact doing much more, by supporting broader public health efforts. I’m extremely proud that Rotary and Rotarians around the world have helped bring the world to the threshold of being wild polio-free. But I’m perhaps even more proud of the ‘plus’ – or ‘added’ value – that this network has provided in the process. Things that are largely unseen, but which are very evident and concrete. So indeed, Rotarians have been actively engaged in the pandemic response, particularly in high-risk areas such as Pakistan, and Nigeria. We have supported contact tracing, educated communities on hygiene and distancing measures, supporting testing and other tactics. We have a unique set of experiences, and more importantly a unique infrastructure and network, to help during such crises. It’s morally the only way to operate. And actually, it is operationally beneficial also to polio eradication, as we are engaging with communities on broader terms, and not just on polio.
PN: Thank you again for taking the time to speak with us. Do you have any final thoughts or reflections for our readers?
HK: If we did not know it before, we certainly know now how quickly and dangerously infectious diseases spread around the globe. Polio is no different, and we know that it will not stay confined to Pakistan and Afghanistan if we don’t stop transmission there as soon as possible. We know that given the chance, this disease will come roaring back, and within ten years, we would again see 200,000 children paralysed every single year, all over the world. Perhaps even in my country, Germany. That would be a humanitarian catastrophe that must be averted at all costs.
The good news is that it can be averted. We know what it takes. Pakistan and Afghanistan are re-launching their national eradication efforts in an intensified, emergency manner, following a disrupted 2020. This is encouraging to see. Mirroring this engagement must be the strengthened commitments by the international development community. We must ensure that the financial resources are urgently mobilised to finish polio once and for all. I am particularly proud that my own government, Germany, for example, has just recently committed an additional 35 million EURO to the effort, along with an additional 10 million EURO for efforts in Nigeria and Pakistan. Such support is particularly critical now, given that more than 80 million children are at heightened risk of diseases such a polio due to COVID-19 disruptions, and late last year, UNICEF and WHO issued an emergency call for action to urgently address this. And as we have seen, by supporting polio eradication, donors effectively get twice as much for their contribution: they help contribute to polio eradication, but also by doing so help contribute to the polio network’s support to public health emergencies such as COVID-19.
In short, we have it in our own hands to achieve success. There are no technical or biological reasons why polio should persist anywhere in the world. It is now a question of political and societal will. If we all redouble our efforts, success will follow.
Please consider making a contribution to Rotary’s PolioPlus fund, and have your donation matched 2-to-1 by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
As COVID-19 reached Somalia, Mohamed readied himself to respond. For years, he had been building strong relationships with local health officers and communities to deliver polio vaccines to every child. Now, he would use those relationships to try to track the spread of the pandemic.
In Nigeria, Dr Rosemary Onyibe, a Polio Eradication Zonal Coordinator for WHO, felt her duty was calling. “My expertise is needed to serve my community,” she remembers thinking. Within days, she was working on Nigeria’s COVID-19 response.
These two individuals are part of a team of 5923 polio eradication personnel, who pivoted in a matter of weeks to fight COVID-19 in some of the most vulnerable settings in the world. A recent report published by WHO comprehensively documents the significant role played by polio eradication personnel during the pandemic, and urges strong action to sustain this network to deliver essential public health services after polio is eradicated. By doing so, we can ensure we are ready to respond to established and emergent diseases in future.
The polio programme has a long history of stepping up during health emergencies to fill the gaps that no one else can. As COVID-19 changed lives around the globe, polio staff led outbreak response teams and trained laboratory staff to detect the virus. Polio disease surveillance officers searched for COVID-19 cases and thousands of frontline polio workers shared information on the disease with their communities. In some countries, polio emergency operations centres were converted for the pandemic response. As the situation has evolved, so have polio programme contributions – in coming months, the programme plans to use its expertise in immunization to help to deliver COVID-19 vaccines, as well as urgently reach at least 80 million childrenwho have missed out on vital vaccines during the pandemic.
As one of WHO’s largest operational workforces, comprising nearly 18% of the organization’s programme budget in 2020-21, the widespread utilisation of polio-funded infrastructure and human resources for COVID-19 has brought into focus why we must retain this network for the future. When polio is eradicated, funding for the programme’s vast infrastructure will end. Through the “polio transition” process, WHO is working to transfer the polio network to serve other public health goals, including the broader immunization, health emergencies and health systems strengthening agenda. This is no easy task – detailed planning and dedicated funding is needed to permanently integrate assets and functions into national health systems.
The report finds that COVID-19, whilst presenting challenges, provides an opportunity to accelerate this “transition” process. In the coming months, WHO regional offices will begin to launch ‘integrated public health teams’, which will bring together individuals with expertise in polio eradication, emergency response and immunization to work collaboratively on the next stages of COVID-19 response and recovery. Showing “transition in action”, these teams will exemplify one way via which health systems could be supported in future. Simultaneously, WHO is continuing work to support countries to develop detailed plans modelling how polio capabilities can be sustained.
The critical role that polio assets have played in tackling multiple health emergencies, in supporting immunization activities and in COVID-19 response, demonstrate that these assets have a clear role to advance future national and global health security. This will also help to sustain a polio-free world. In the South East Asia Region, which was certified free of wild polio in 2014, almost 2600 polio and immunization staff used their experience of managing immunization programmes in emergency settings to respond to COVID-19. Their work included undertaking training of health staff and village governors in Indonesia, acting as a focal point for the COVID-19 response in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, and drafting vaccination plans for Rohingya refugees. In Nepal, the network supported COVID-19 field investigations and case clusters, whilst in Myanmar, personnel formed part of the pandemic incident management team, and supported disease surveillance. These contributions underline that sustaining polio and immunization capacity puts us in a better position to respond when health crises arise.
The report also details how polio assets were able to reach nomadic communities in Kenya to warn them about virus spread, deliver an integrated digital platform for tracking case investigations across the African region, and answer 70 000 calls a day through a polio call centre adapted for COVID-19 in Pakistan. In Uttar Pradesh, India, polio micro-plans were adapted to survey 208 million people twice in three months for COVID-19, resulting in the identification of over 200 000 individuals with symptoms of the virus. Such diversity of operations plays a key role in protecting our collective health.
In a time when sturdy public health systems are particularly vital, we must ensure that polio infrastructure is transitioned to tackle pressing health issues long into the future.
For a detailed costing of polio contributions to COVID-19 response and a country-level breakdown of how the polio network stepped up, please see the report annexes.
In a newly-released statement following the final meeting of the Polio Oversight Board (POB) that was held virtually on 18 December 2020, the POB looks back at the support that the programme provided to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, while remaining strongly devoted to the goal of a polio-free world. The POB reaffirms its commitment that polio-funded assets are available to countries to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in the next phase of COVID-19 vaccine introduction and delivery.
The POB also believes that for countries introducing COVID-19 vaccine, there are lessons and experiences to be learnt from the rollout of nOPV2 under the EUL recommendation, if emergency regulatory pathways such as WHO EUL are used, including in the areas of monitoring readiness-verification, safety surveillance, and regulatory considerations.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the need for strong health systems and global health security into sharp focus. Last week, the United Kingdom’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) agreed a £30 million increase in the first payment to the World Health Organization of their 2019 – 2023 pledge, meaning that the total amount released for polio eradication activities is £70 million. Coming amidst challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, including a growing immunity gap, this gesture is a testament to the UK government’s strong commitment to investing in high impact programmes that strengthen global health security – including the polio programme.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) has played an integral role in the global response, contributing physical assets, outbreak response expertise and a trained workforce to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. This support was largely made possible thank to donors like the United Kingdom.
The United Kingdom is a historic donor to efforts to end polio, committing an exceptional £400 million to eradication activities in the period from 2019 – 2023. Since 1985, the UK has contributed over US $1.6 billion, and has played an integral role in preventing the paralysis of more than 18 million children.
Widespread polio vaccination efforts over the past 30 years have led to a 99.9% decrease in global polio cases. Health workers, local governments, global partners and generous donors have made this progress possible. The increased payment by the UK will ensure that this progress against polio is not lost due to disruptions by the COVID-19 pandemic, and that the polio programme can continue to play an essential role in supporting pandemic response efforts around the world.
As the U.K. prepares to host the upcoming G7 meeting, the GPEI is hopeful that issues around global health security and health systems strengthening, to which polio can contribute, will be prioritized.
Ms. Rina Dey has spent over 25 years working in health and development, including front-line efforts to eradicate polio in India and globally.
“Unless we work at the community level, we’re not getting the full story. Ensuring community participation is the only way to achieve social transformation and to ensure that all children get immunized,” she explains.
In her role as Director of Communications for the CORE Group Polio Project, Ms. Dey works tirelessly to bring community perspectives to decision-makers at the national and state levels. Ms. Dey also continues to share lessons and innovative strategies from her work in India with other parts of the world impacted by polio.
Regardless of the location, her message is the same, “We need to take the time to listen. All questions and concerns are valid when it comes to making decisions about the health of one’s family – each deserves to be heard, understood and acted upon – without this, we will not be successful in protecting children.”
India, once thought to be the most difficult place in the world to end polio, was declared wild polio-free on March 27, 2014. A large part of this huge success was the ability to work one-on-one with communities in high-risk areas.
A pivotal moment
Ms. Dey began working in polio as a front-line Health Information, Education and Communication Officer with UNICEF and WHO.
She remembers, “Early in my career, during a field visit to Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, I came with a vaccination team to a house for polio immunization. A man came to the door, armed with a sword, and shouted that he would kill his nine-month old daughter, if we tried to enter and give her polio drops. I took a step back and directed our team to leave the house. It shook me.”
After taking the time to listen to the man’s concerns, Ms. Dey learned that the man was receiving a lot of misinformation from friends as well as his workplace. Out of fear and misunderstanding, he made the most severe threat possible to try and keep the health workers away from his family – in his mind to protect them.
“After taking the time to really listen to him and his friends, we began talking. I assured him that no one would vaccinate his daughter without his permission.”
Health workers need the knowledge and skills to effectively deal with these types of situations and to ensure that communities are receiving accurate information to make choices about the health of their families.
“The key is to address their questions and to build trust. By the following day, he welcomed the vaccination of his daughter and even went on to become an influential member of the community helping to address the concerns of other families.”
Ms. Dey decided to re-shape the way frontline health workers were trained.
“We needed to equip the health worker and vaccination teams with accurate knowledge and enhanced communication skills to understand and address the concerns of the families. There were many myths and misunderstandings to dispel, so I have put a lot of thinking into developing simple and user-friendly materials and methods which are local and participatory.”
“Investing in building capacities of frontline workers works! If they are not technically sound, they won’t be able to answer people’s queries.”
Nothing for us, without us
The Moradabad district in Uttar Pradesh was once an epicenter for polio outbreaks globally. Today, a monument to the district’s success stands tall above the bustling traffic of Moradabad City.
The monument is comprised of a large mother and child sculpture surrounded by the slogan “Two drops of life“. A polio vaccine vial sits on a base with four panels describing the partnership, strategies and journey to a polio-free India.
“No one thought it could be done when we started, but people from Uttar Pradesh, Delhi and West Bengal supported the polio eradication cause with high spirit and the job was done peacefully. A sense of great pride remains in Moradabad, and the whole of India.”
“When communities are heard and feel a sense of pride in the effort, sustained change is possible. But the flip side is also true.”
Ms. Dey remembers how children would come running with excitement, waving and cheering to interact with her team.
“When we were out on visits, the children would run to greet us. They wanted to know who we were, why we were in their neighbourhood and what we were doing. We would talk with them – we knew their names and what they were studying.”
“However, after some time, I realized that the children stopped coming, and some even began hiding from us. This was heartbreaking.”
Communities were being told that the vaccines could cause infertility, and parents were telling their children to run away from immunization teams. Dey took these insights to heart. She pushed her team, government officials and partners to think differently.
“I never thought of quitting. I want to see a polio-free world in my lifetime. I love children. I am working so that they can have a healthy life.”
She decided to develop strategies that would ramp up the involvement of influential members of the community, parents, schools, local government and families to ensure that accurate information was accessible to community members.
“We worked hard, and the scenario changed. Parents deserve to have accurate information so that they can make informed decisions about their children’s health. Many of those we engaged in this project are still advocates for polio eradication and immunization today.”
Women’s contributions cannot be overlooked
“At ground level, we have lots of female health workers. In many countries a majority of frontline health workers and vaccinators are women, but at the higher levels, we find that the majority of leadership positions are held by men.”
“Women can often be sidelined in meetings. Things have improved, but we have more work to do. When women are in leadership positions, you find that other women are promoted and women’s voices from community level are more often heard.”
Ms. Dey recalls her own experience, “Once during a discussion with community leaders, I was not allowed inside one of the prestigious religious institutions. Even as a senior member of the team, I was made to wait outside for hours, while my male colleagues were permitted to speak with the officials inside.”
When asked what advice she would give to women beginning their careers in public health, Ms. Dey says, “Be a good listener. You must visit communities, spend time with them and build strategies for your work that are grounded in the realities of the people you are aiming to reach. You must make communications simple and always put appropriate ingredients into your approaches.”
“The health of our children and families is a very personal and foundational aspect of human life. Ultimately to increase vaccine acceptance, we have to relate to people on a human level first before launching into the science.”
“We’re always ready to give answers, but we also have to listen – at every level,” says Ms. Dey. “We must move away from being instructive and take the time to see people’s concerns as valid and to help people understand the science behind what we’re asking them to do.”
Paralympic medalist and TV presenter Ade Adepitan, who co-hosts this year’s programme, says that the eradication of wild polio in Africa was personal for him. “Since I was born in Nigeria, this achievement is close to my heart,” says Adepitan, a polio survivor who contracted the disease as a child. “I’ve been waiting for this day since I was young.”
He notes that, just a decade ago, three-quarters of all of the world’s polio cases caused by the wild virus were contracted in Africa. Now, more than a billion Africans are safe from the disease. “But we’re not done,” Adepitan cautions. “We’re in pursuit of an even greater triumph — a world without polio. And I can’t wait.”
Rotary Foundation Trustee Geeta Manek, who co-hosts the programme with Adepitan, says that World Polio Day is an opportunity for Rotary members to be motivated to “continue this fight.”
She adds, “Rotarians around the world are working tirelessly to support the global effort to end polio.”
Now that the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared that its African region is free of the wild poliovirus, five of the WHO’s six regions, representing more than 90 percent of the world’s population, are now free of the disease. It is still endemic in Afghanistan and Pakistan, both in the WHO’s Eastern Mediterranean region.
“This effort required incredible coordination and cooperation between governments, UN agencies, civil organizations, health workers, and parents,” says Manek, a member of the Rotary Club of Muthaiga, Kenya. “I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished.”
A collective effort
Dr. Tunji Funsho, chair of Rotary’s Nigeria PolioPlus Committee and a member of the Rotary Club of Lekki Phase 1, Lagos State, Nigeria, tells online viewers that the milestone couldn’t have been reached without the efforts of Rotary members and leaders in Africa and around the world.
“Polio eradication is truly a collective effort … This accomplishment belongs to all of us,” says Funsho.
Rotary and its members have contributed nearly $890 million toward polio eradication efforts in the African region. The funds have allowed Rotary to award PolioPlus grants to fund polio surveillance, transportation, awareness campaigns, and National Immunization Days.
This year’s World Polio Day Online Global Update is streamed on Facebook in several languages and in a number of time zones around the world. The programme, which is sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, features Jeffrey Kluger, editor at large for TIME magazine; Mark Wright, TV news host and member of the Rotary Club of Seattle, Washington, USA; and Angélique Kidjo, a Grammy Award-winning singer who performs her song “M’Baamba.”
The challenges of 2020
It’s impossible to talk about 2020 without mentioning the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than a million people and devastated economies around the world.
In the programme, a panel of global health experts from Rotary’s partners in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) discuss how the infrastructure that Rotary and the GPEI have built to eradicate polio has helped communities tackle needs caused by the COVID-19 pandemic too.
“The infrastructure we built through polio in terms of how to engage communities, how to work with communities, how to rapidly teach communities to actually deliver health interventions, do disease surveillance, et cetera, has been an extremely important part of the effort to tackle so many other diseases,” says Dr. Bruce Aylward, Senior Adviser to the Director General at the WHO.
Panelists also include Dr. Christopher Elias, President of the Global Development Division of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; Henrietta H. Fore, Executive Director of UNICEF; and Rebecca Martin, Director of the Center for Global Health at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Elias says that when there are global health emergencies, such as outbreaks of other contagious diseases, Rotarians always help. “They take whatever they’ve learned from doing successful polio campaigns that have reached all the children in the village, and they apply that to reaching them with yellow fever or measles vaccine.”
Theprogramme discusses several pandemic response tactics that rely on polio eradication infrastructure: Polio surveillance teams in Ethiopia are reporting COVID-19 cases, and emergency operation centers in Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan that are usually used to fight polio are now also being used as coordination centers for COVID-19 response.
The online programme also includes a video of brave volunteer health workers immunizing children in the restive state of Borno, Nigeria, and profiles a community mobilizer in Afghanistan who works tirelessly to ensure that children are protected from polio.
Kluger speaks with several people, including three Rotary members, about their childhood experiences as “Polio Pioneers” — they were among more than a million children who took part in a huge trial of Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine in the 1950s.
The future of the fight against polio
Rotary’s challenge now is to eradicate the wild poliovirus in the two countries where the disease has never been stopped: Afghanistan and Pakistan. Routine immunizations must also be strengthened in Africa to keep the virus from returning there. The polio partnership is working to rid the world of all strains of poliovirus, so that no child is affected by polio paralysis ever again.
To eradicate polio, multiple high-quality immunization campaigns must be carried out each year in polio-affected and high-risk countries. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it is necessary to maintain populations’ immunity against polio while also protecting health workers from the coronavirus and making sure they don’t transmit it.
Rotary has contributed more than $2.1 billion to polio eradication since it launched the PolioPlus programme in 1985, and it’s committed to raising $50 million each year for polio eradication activities. Because of a 2-to-1 matching agreement with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, each year, $150 million goes toward fulfilling Rotary’s promise to the children of the world: No child will ever again suffer the devastating effects of polio.
He is the first Rotary member to receive this honor for work toward eradicating polio.
A Rotarian for 35 years, Funsho is a member of the Rotary Club of Lekki, Nigeria, past governor of District 9110, and serves on Rotary’s International PolioPlus Committee. Funsho is a cardiologist and a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of London. He lives in Lagos, Nigeria with his wife Aisha. They have four children; Habeeb, Kike, Abdullahi and Fatima; and five grandchildren.
TIME 100 comprises individuals whose leadership, talent, discoveries, and philanthropy have made a difference in the world. Past honorees include Bono, the Dalai Lama, Bill Gates, Nelson Mandela, Angela Merkel, Oprah Winfrey, and Malala Yousafzai.
After the World Health Assembly passed a resolution to eradicate polio worldwide in 1988, the Global Certification Commission led the way in establishing a formal certification process, asking each of the six WHO regions to set up a Regional Certification Commission. Then in 1996, the WHO Regional Director for Africa created the Africa Regional Certification Commission (ARCC) for Polio Eradication: a 16-person independent body tasked with overseeing this process, and later on containment activities in the African region.
Professor Rose Leke, an infectious disease specialist, has been the chairperson of the ARCC since it was set up in 1998. A trailblazer for women in global health, Leke has fought throughout her career to improve women’s representation in science and global health leadership. In 2018, she was one of nine women honored with a Heroine of Health award, recognizing her outstanding contribution to health care.
Stopping the ‘havoc’ of polio in Africa
Professors Leke explains her motivation to join the polio eradication cause, “When I was invited to be part of the ARCC in 1998, I was not involved in any polio-related work. But I could see the havoc that polio was reaping on the continent. I had a nephew who was paralyzed from polio and suffered brain damage, and another relative who contracted polio and continues to inspire me. Back then, you saw so many paralyzed young people on the streets. You don’t see that today.”
Ridding the African continent of wild poliovirus is a huge achievement, many years in the making. Nigeria, the last bastion of the wild virus, proved a particularly tough setting in which to vaccinate every child and ensure that no trace of the virus remained.
Professor Leke reflects, “It’s been such a long road. When Nigeria didn’t report any cases of wild polio for two years between 2014 to 2016, we were apprehensive but satisfied. We were so close to eradication as a region, everything was going so well, and then wild polio was reported again in Nigeria in August 2016, and certification had to go on the back burner.”
“The Nigerian response to their outbreaks has been extraordinary. Everyone is committed and highly involved. In Sokoto and Kano states, where I was recently for a field verification visit, and in all other states, everyone – from government officials, traditional leaders, health staff and field teams, community health workers and informants, polio survivors to traditional birth attendants – was heavily engaged in the response. The innovative technologies that have emerged have similarly been incredible. The Nigerian Emergency Operations Centre is a well-coordinated structure that is behind Nigeria’s success. Other disease programs in Africa are learning from this.”
Personal commitment to end polio
Professor Leke never lost her drive to end polio, even during difficult years and despite the tough choices her role sometimes presented.
“When we started, we were aiming for wild polio to be eradicated by 2000; the thought of this success really kept me motivated and still does. At times it has been a huge sacrifice; as Temporary Advisers, ARCC members are not paid, and I’ve sometimes given up consultancies to do this work. My husband, children and grandchildren will tell you, there was a huge amount of traveling and many meetings. But I don’t regret the time spent for a moment on such a cause.”
“When Dr Moeti was appointed as WHO Africa Regional Director in 2011, this was further motivation to continue: I wanted to support a fellow woman. In the beginning, I was the only female in the Global Certification Commission. The commission has addressed this imbalance and we are now two females out of the six members. We need more women in senior positions on the African continent.”
Fighting for gender equality in global health and science
In 2011, Professor Leke won the Kwame Nkrumah Award for the best female scientist in Central Africa for her research on malaria. As part of her acceptance of the award, she took a pledge “to help promote the participation of women in science in Cameroon.”
Within a year, she had helped set up HIGHER Women, a mentoring programme for senior female scientists to deliver hard and soft skills training to their early career counterparts. To support the programme, Professor Leke contributed some of her own funds.
Professor Leke says, “As a woman I encountered blocks on the way during my career – at times men asked me to leave the laboratory space I was working in.”
“Science can be a pyramid – there are many early women researchers, but far fewer at the top of the field. Research and academia have a ‘publish or perish’ culture which disadvantages women who have responsibilities outside of the lab – such as raising a family.”
Professor Leke has continually used her position to promote women in science and global health, even sharing her favorite motivational track about women’s empowerment.
Whilst great progress towards gender balance has been made since she started her career, Professor Leke is firm in noting that there is more to do. In the African regional polio programme, women still lead only a small number of national committees.
A lasting legacy
Professor Leke is proud of the public health legacy that the polio eradication programme will leave in the African region. She says, “The polio response has brought many skilled technicians into Africa’s health systems. The GPEI paved the way for working closely with traditional healers and community leaders and has really helped to strengthen the systems that report on other diseases. The polio laboratory network is being used for other diseases, giving capacity in the region for doing all sorts of other diagnostics. You’ll find the one person in the health center who was there for polio is reporting on many other diseases.”
“After we declare Africa as free of the wild poliovirus, the ARCC will work with countries to ensure they keep up good quality surveillance, and improve routine immunization, keeping population immunity as high as possible. We will also continue to guide countries in continuing to monitor population immunity to prevent importations of wild poliovirus from outside the African region, while ensuring that the threat of circulating vaccine derived polio viruses (cVDPVs) is addressed.”
“Our work continues until all forms of polio have been eradicated globally.”
Little Ana first learned about the importance of vaccines from her father, a pediatrician. Growing up during El Salvador’s 12-year civil war meant that electricity cuts were a common occurrence. Whenever the electricity went out, Ana’s father would rush the vaccines he kept in his clinic to the nearby hospital, where generators kept the cold chain refrigerators working. Seeing her father’s dedication to his work, Ana knew she would also become a doctor.
Fast-forward to 2020. Dr. Ana Elena Chevez has dedicated over twenty years of her life to protecting children from vaccine preventable diseases. She has worked in four countries across two regions, and currently serves as a Regional Immunization Advisor for polio at the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), the Regional Office for the Americas of the World Health Organization, supporting the 52 countries and territories of the Americas to maintain polio-free status.
Throughout her career, she has never stopped dreaming high – advice given to her by family, mentors and colleagues.
Dr. Ana’s first job in public health was as a national immunization manager in El Salvador. Her mentor was PAHO/WHO immunization advisor Dr. Salvador Garcia. “Dr. Garcia taught me everything I needed to know about running an immunization programme. I knew that I could call him at any time, and I would get the answer that I needed,” she said.
The last mile of polio eradication in Nigeria
As polio cases surged in the African region in 2007, Dr. Ana was selected to go to Nigeria to support outbreak response. In a twist of fate, a three-month assignment turned into four years as Nigeria’s Supplementary Immunization Activity (SIA) coordinator.
This experience was pivotal for Dr. Ana’s career – it solidified her passion for polio eradication and introduced her to new colleagues and a new
country, which would soon become Dr. Ana’s second family and her home-away-from-home.
Dr. Ana was inspired by the constant innovation she saw in Nigeria. “We were always looking for ways to improve quality of the campaigns – improve training, surveillance, cold chain. It was always innovation, innovation, innovation.”
Dr. Ana believes that way of thinking really took Nigeria to the next level. “We started seeing fewer cases, more children vaccinated, and a higher level of acceptance among parents and leaders.”
As SIA coordinator, Dr. Ana oversaw all polio campaigns in the country. During these years, polio campaigns were happening on an almost monthly basis, alongside campaigns for yellow fever, tetanus elimination, and measles. It was overwhelming. “By the time we returned from the field to analyze one campaign, it was already time to start preparation for the next one. It was tiring for everyone – for us (the WHO staff), the partners, for the national/state/local health authorities, and of course for the vaccinators.”
Despite the pressure, Dr. Ana said, “If you were to ask me if I would do it again, I would say yes in a heartbeat. For me, it was being a part of an important moment in history – for the country, for public health, and for the polio programme.”
Maintaining momentum in a region certified free of polio for over 25 years
In 2017, Dr. Ana became PAHO/WHO’s Regional Advisor in charge of polio. The last case of wild poliovirus in the Americas was in 1991 and the region was certified free of polio in 1994. Although more than 25 years have passed since the Americas received polio free status, until polio is eradicated everywhere, the disease is still a risk.
Dr. Ana explains, “Even though new generations of nurses, doctors, and epidemiologists have not seen a case of polio firsthand, they understand the risk remains.” There have been 26 meetings of PAHO’s Technical Advisory Group (TAG) meeting on vaccine preventable diseases, and polio has been included on the agenda for every meeting.
It has not always been easy to keep this momentum. In recent years, countries in the Americas have had trouble meeting the indicators required to prove sensitive surveillance systems. For the last few years, PAHO has been holding almost yearly regional polio meetings to sensitize countries on the GPEI’s requirements for eradication and stress the importance of achieving high immunization coverage rates for polio and high standards of surveillance.
Dr. David Salisbury, chair of the Global Certification Commission for Polio Eradication, said at the regional PAHO polio meeting in 2017 that “there will be no free pass” for countries that are polio-free. All nations must provide documentation of certification standard surveillance to back up their belief that polio is eliminated amongst their population.
For Dr. Ana, these words hit home, “The work done by those that here before me has helped the countries to be aware. It has been my role to keep that momentum alive and help countries meet the required goals established in the Endgame Strategy.”
A message for the new generation of women public health leaders
In recent decades, women leaders in public health and immunization made important contributions to a field once dominated by men.
Dr. Ana recalls many of the women leaders that she’s worked with and considers that they have gone above and beyond what is expected. “They have raised the bar and have given the message that other women can work in public heath – it doesn’t matter your religion or colour – it matters that you care.”
Dr. Ana is excited to see more women step into leadership roles. “The new generation is coming. We need them – we need to prepare them. We are close to polio eradication, but we must think about what is next and prepare the new generation to tackle these issues with confidence. I tell my nieces that they can go and contribute to the world and make an impact.”
Reflecting on her own motivation, Dr. Ana says, “I always believed that I could make an impact, I just needed the tools, time and opportunity.”
“Young women leaders: Keep dreaming high. Keep dreaming that you can influence the health of whole populations. Don’t be afraid to set high goals– don’t be afraid to think that it is possible to control, eliminate, or even eradicate a disease.”
For Somalis, COVID-19 is the most immediate crisis in a seemingly unending cycle of floods, food insecurity, conflict and outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases like measles, cholera and polio. Against this backdrop, the World Health Organization’s polio programme is working to steer the COVID response and, more broadly, maintain vaccine immunity levels and improve access to healthcare. It’s no easy feat.
Dr Mohamed Ali Kamil, the outgoing World Health Organization Polio Team Lead and COVID-19 incident manager for Somalia, is in awe of the commitment shown by health staff. He recently phoned a Polio Logistician diagnosed with COVID-19 who was experiencing symptoms, to insist he stop working remotely from his sickbed. Dr Kamil recalls, “He said, “No Sir, I will continue.”
Since the first COVID-19 case was diagnosed in Somalia on 16 March 2020, the polio programme has fought the pandemic from the ground up. Dr Kamil explains, “No other health programme has comparable expertise to serve the Somali population during COVID-19. During their time in the programme, members of the polio team have responded to many different disease outbreaks. This means they were well placed and well trained to respond to COVID-19.”
“The polio programme has spent years building staff capacity and systems to implement vaccination campaigns and detect the poliovirus in the community. In some ways, the team are the first and last line of defense.”
The response includes education, case identification, contact tracing, case management and data support. As of June, polio staff working as part of rapid response teams (RRTs) had reached 2.6 million people with messages about COVID-19 prevention. District Polio Officers within the RRTs have led the investigation of over 4500 people with suspected COVID-19 across the country. The country has set up three COVID-19 testing facilities and the polio structure established for the collection and shipment of stool samples from AFP cases has been used for the transportation of COVID-19 samples.
Throughout, polio personnel have continued their full-time work to end the circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus (cVDPV) outbreaks that have thus far paralyzed sixteen children since 2017.
The team are driven by a humanitarian commitment to the Somali population, who have suffered over 30 years of protracted conflict and insecurity. At least 5.2 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, and secondary and tertiary healthcare is virtually non-existent outside of a few large cities. Health literacy is low, and populations are highly vulnerable to diseases like polio, measles, cholera and now COVID-19. In November 2019, widespread flooding brought further turmoil and danger to Somali families.
The team’s work is made more difficult by the emotional toll wrought by the pandemic. To date at least 143 health workers have been identified with COVID-19 infection. In April, Ibrahim Elmi Mohamed, a District Polio Officer who spent 19 years striving for a polio-free Somalia, died of a COVID-19-related illness. His death, one of many frontline staff around the world due to COVID-19, remind us of the risks they face every time they go to work.
Challenges lie ahead to defeat polio
Dr Kamil is clear that the polio programme will require ongoing funding and the support of authorities, partners and communities in order to maintain polio activities amidst the pandemic.
“To sustain the immunity gains we must implement a number of polio vaccination campaigns each year until the routine immunization programme can reach every Somali child with all polio vaccines. Somalia is extremely fragile and at high risk of becoming endemic for poliovirus if we do not maintain and support the polio infrastructure,” he says.
Since the cVDPV outbreaks were first detected in 2017, the programme has streamlined disease surveillance for cases of acute flaccid paralysis and other preventable diseases, including by introducing mobile technology to record details of suspected cases. For the first time, environmental disease surveillance was introduced. Over three years, frontline health workers have implemented more than 15 polio campaigns, including integrated campaigns with the measles programme.
Dr Kamil explains, “We still don’t know where the virus is coming from exactly. There are many inaccessible areas, where we cannot deliver vaccines or respond with immunization campaigns. We suspect that the virus is circulating among vulnerable children and communities living in these areas.”
Dr Kamil feels strongly that the polio programme has a duty to support other health interventions. He says, “COVID-19 shows what the frontline polio staff can achieve and the strength of surveillance and response systems.’’
Despite the challenges, Dr Kamil retains his belief that with ongoing funding and support, the cVDPV outbreaks in Somalia can be brought to a close. He reflects, “COVID-19 is a huge emergency in Somalia. Our staff are working flat out, and we expect to see many more cases, but at the same time we must continue to fight polio. The Somali community and the world deserve to be free of this disease.”
“We must reschedule our March polio vaccination campaign which was delayed because of the COVID 19 outbreak. We must do everything possible to keep health workers safe from COVID-19. It’s a hard situation, but we must not stop until we overcome both viruses.”
Nida, a polio community worker in Lahore, is glued to her mobile phone. But this is not a leisurely conversation with a friend. She is messaging a mother in her neighbourhood who is worried about COVID-19.
Since the pandemic began, polio programme workers across the country have pivoted to use messaging applications, especially WhatsApp, to disseminate COVID-19 prevention and care messages to communities. This is one aspect of the extensive support being offered by the Pakistan polio programme to the COVID-19 response.
Over the last few months, the polio programme has produced a suite of videos, digital pamphlets and posters on COVID-19 prevention and care in formats that can be easily shared and viewed via messaging platforms.
“This is an example of resilience – how the polio team has adapted to the change and found an effective way to support the people across the country during the COVID-19 crisis,” said UNICEF’s Dennis Chimenya, the Communication Task Team lead of the Pakistan Polio Programme. “Standing with the community during these challenging times will certainly contribute to building further trust in polio frontline workers.”
Engaging religious and community influencers
Engaging religious leaders and local influencers is a critical part of effective community outreach. Now, many are receiving messages and calls from polio community workers seeking their support for the COVID-19 response.
Qari Zafar, a religious cleric at a mosque in Lahore, was a staunch opponent of restrictions to religious gatherings.
“Initially, I was totally against the idea of asking people to pray at home. I felt that people need to pray together at the mosque during this difficult time and support each other,” said Zafar.
“Then I started receiving messages and posters from [polio community workers] Nida and Uzma about how the coronavirus spreads. Our chats helped me understand the seriousness of the situation.”
“I have started making announcements through the mosque loudspeakers, asking people to offer their prayers at home, even during Ramadan. I also regularly message my followers, reminding them about healthy practices.”
The ‘new normal’ for community outreach work
“Messaging platforms have become the ‘new normal’ to carry out community outreach activities,” said Muhammad Asif, a polio frontline worker in Quetta, Balochistan province.
At the north west frontier region of Pakistan, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, the polio communication teams have created 63 group chats, tailored for different audiences, to amplify COVID-19 preventive messages.
In Punjab, similar groups have helped the programme reach over 110,000 people with digital posters and leaflets. Messaging applications are also helping the programme communicate with religious pilgrims and other mobile populations, whose travel patterns put them at greater risk of becoming infected with COVID-19.
In Sindh, WhatsApp has helped the programme reach over 200,000 people at risk, 4,000 religious leaders, 3,000 influencers and more than 80 journalists with awareness materials and guidelines for ethical reporting.
“The potential of using such platforms under the present circumstances is huge. Yes, our movement is limited but we have to find a way to do our job and to ensure that the correct messages reach the right audience on time,” said Fatima Fraz, Communication for Development Specialist for the polio programme in Sindh.
“Just imagine, there are 14,000 polio frontline staff in Karachi. If each staff member sends out the messages and then follows up by phone with just 20 people, that’s 280,000 people reached right then and there.”
WHO has launched a dedicated messaging service in languages including Arabic, English, French, Hindi, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Urdu and Somali to keep people safe from coronavirus.
The polio eradication programme has stepped up to help the Sudanese Ministry of Health limit spread of the COVID-19 virus. The programme is working in 14 states in the country supporting COVID-19 surveillance, information dissemination and training of health workers.
Dr Niazy Abd Alhameed Abd Alwahab, a National Medical Officer for the polio programme since 2013, is one of the personnel playing a key role. He and colleagues recently led two WHO COVID-19 trainings in River Nile state, one for Rapid Response Teams (RRTs) and one for local hospital staff, in addition to supporting trainings run by the State Ministry of Health.
Thanks to the trainings, health workers in all seven localities in the state are ready to help individuals who are showing symptoms of COVID-19. In total, more than 3000 RRT members have been trained across Sudan with support from polio National Medical Officers.
By early May, River Nile state had suffered seven cases of COVID-19, with two fatalities. “The state is organized to respond”, Dr Niazy explains, “All patients are being treated in dedicated isolation facilities in hospitals, and medical staff are on high alert for more cases. We helped train teams so that they are able to serve the population.”
Training Rapid Response Teams
A five-day training of Rapid Response Teams, funded by WHO, was targeted at seven teams, one from each state locality. Of the 42 individuals trained, 30 were women and 12 were men. The Rapid Response Teams have been created for the COVID-19 response. Each team contains individuals with the collective public health experience to contribute to local efforts to fight the virus, spearheading work in contact tracing and engagement with the community.
The first day of training was attended by the Director General Health of the State Ministry of Health and the Head of the Emergency Humanitarian Assistance (EHA) department.
Dr Niazy explains that over the five days, participants gained a comprehensive understanding of Sudan’s COVID-19 surveillance and contact tracing systems, infection prevention and control practices, case management methods, and how to collect samples and arrange shipment to the national laboratory in Khartoum. Participants were also trained on how to use PPE safely and how best to wash their hands.
“Participants were encouraged to take part in interactive exercises to test and strengthen their knowledge, as well as take part in discussions,” he says.
“By the end of the training, all participants were fully trained and able to pass on their knowledge in their localities.”
Training local health staff
The polio programme also supported a two-day COVID-19 training for 34 women and 22 men who work in state hospitals as doctors, lab technicians, or other medical personnel. The programme continues to support the State Ministry of Health with further local trainings, including for medical registrars.
The situation in River Nile state is very challenging. There are chronic shortages of PPE, hand sanitizer and masks, and WHO is offering urgent support to help procure these. Severe shortages of fuel and currency are making response more difficult. Social norms in some communities dissuade individuals with COVID-19 symptoms from seeking medical assistance, and work must be carried out to build trust and ensure people with COVID-19 are found and offered care.
To serve the COVID-19 response and prevent virus spread, the polio eradication programme has had to scale back some of its usual work. Dr Niazy explains, “Vaccination campaigns are paused, and many private clinics are closed, some of the public health centres are turned into isolation centres as part of the response to this emergency. This makes detecting acute flaccid paralysis (AFP) more difficult, as health personnel are trained to report children with AFP who come to the health centres.”
Efforts are being made across the Eastern Mediterranean Region to minimize the impact of COVID-19 on the overall health of populations, during a time when many health activities cannot go ahead. In Sudan, a number of children do not have full immunity against polio, and it is critical that routine immunization continues where possible until vaccination campaigns resume.
Dr Hoda Youssef Atta, WHO Representative a,i, explains, “During the COVID-19 emergency the polio eradication programme is committed to providing expertise, training and medical skills to protect Sudan. However, as soon as it is safe to do so, we must scale up programme operations once more to protect vulnerable populations from polio.”
Expertise in polio eradication that has put Africa on the verge of being certified free of wild poliovirus has been brought to the frontlines of the COVID-19 fight. A network of responders from the World Health Organization (WHO) polio eradication programme and partner organizations is providing critical resources and skills to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic.
To boost testing in the WHO African Region, the WHO-coordinated polio laboratory network comprising 16 laboratories in 15 countries is now dedicating 50% of its capacity to COVID-19 testing. Hundreds of tests are carried out every day using polio testing machines in Algeria, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Nigeria, Senegal and South Africa.
“In Africa, no one has the footprint of the polio programme nor the expertise for mounting effective response campaigns. So with COVID-19 threatening to overwhelm health systems, the extensive polio response network is once again lending crucial support as countries build up systems to contain COVID-19,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO Regional Director for Africa.
Contact tracing has also been a central pillar of the WHO polio programme’s support to the COVID-19 response. Mobile phone applications originally developed for health workers to use in polio outbreak response and disease surveillance have been adapted by WHO to be used against COVID-19. In Zimbabwe, for example, over 100 disease surveillance officers are using these tools for case investigations and contact tracing in many provinces where COVID-19 has been confirmed.
In addition, the WHO Geographic Information System (GIS) centre in Brazzaville, Congo – which was opened in 2017 to support the polio programme with adapted technologies and data management – is using its huge experience in outbreak response and disease surveillance to support countries with a range of GIS and software technology and manual solutions to respond to COVID-19. The GIS team is now working around the clock supporting countries to take up the technology for COVID-19 responses.
More than 2000 polio response experts from WHO, UNICEF, Rotary, as well as STOP consultants from the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are supporting the COVID-19 response in the African Region. A quarter of WHO polio staff are dedicating more than 80% of their time towards COVID-19 efforts, with 65% anticipating a commitment of six months or more.
Alongside the support to the COVID-19 response, WHO polio staff are also maintaining critical functions including disease surveillance and planning to resume mass polio immunization campaigns once the situation permits to reduce the risk of new polio outbreaks.
“It is important that the support to COVID-19 response does not jeopardize the progress made in stopping all forms of polio transmission in the region. The fight against the pandemic should not come at the detriment of other health emergencies,” emphasized Dr Moeti.
Focus: Using digital tools for contract tracing in Zimbabwe
“With Zimbabwe’s first COVID-19 case, we used paper tools to facilitate data management during case investigation and contact tracing, but our contact tracers faced many challenges with follow up and reporting,” says Manes Munyanyi, Deputy Director Health Information and Surveillance Systems for Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Health and Child Care.
“Using digital tools [provided by the polio programme] for outbreak responses cannot be overemphasized as the technology provides responders with data management, visualization and information dissemination platforms that support informed decision making at all levels.”
“The road to the mountain village was rough. It’s only 50 kilometres, but it took more than 3 hours,” says Dr Fatima Ismail, a disease surveillance officer working in Somaliland. “We were bouncing in the car.”
In early 2020, Dr Fatima’s team headed to a remote village near Djibouti to check on a small boy. The boy’s right arm and leg showed a kind of paralysis that sometimes indicates polio. “The village polio volunteer in this mountainous area, geographically inaccessible, found an acute flaccid paralysis (AFP) case,” Dr Fatima remembers.
When children show signs of this paralysis, it is critical to get stool samples to a laboratory to determine whether they have polio. Polio teams ride camels in the desert or donkeys in the mountains when they have to. They brave conflict to get samples to laboratories. In brutally hot climates, they plug mini-freezers into car dashboards to keep samples cool.
All over the world, polio surveillance systems that have been built up over decades track infection sources, evaluate symptoms and transport samples to the laboratory — despite distance, natural disasters, and sometimes war. Now, disease surveillance network — reaching into the most far-flung corners of the globe — is being tapped to address the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In Somalia, the polio programme pivoted its workforce of thousands of frontline staff to support the effort as the cases of COVID-19 spread. Rapid response teams — made up of disease surveillance officers, community health care workers and volunteers — were trained to educate people about the virus and to test suspected cases. By April 2020, the teams were deployed in the field,” said Dr Mamunur Malik, WHO Representative in Somalia.
“In Somalia’s remote villages, they know us as their polio teams, and once they see us, what comes to their minds is that we’re giving them information about polio,” says Mohamed*, a surveillance officer. “So we also give them information about COVID-19. Social mobilisers tell them about COVID-19 symptoms, how to prevent getting infected, physical distancing, cleaning their hands very well with running water and soap.”
The careful procedures that the teams learned for polio surveillance have been adapted for COVID-19, where the required sample is a naso-pharyngeal swab. “We’ve trained our surveillance people on the case definition and how to collect the samples correctly, from people that meet the definition of a suspected case of COVID-19,” says Dr Fatima. “It’s the same infrastructure. After, when we collect the samples from the patient, we send it to the laboratory in Hargeisa.” WHO has given the laboratory equipment and supplies to test samples for COVID-19.
“As with polio samples, the samples of COVID-19 have to be refrigerated, the ice packs should be VERY cold,” says Mohamed. Teams are used to monitoring the packs’ temperature, even in Somalia’s hot weather.
“The logistical challenges we face with AFP/polio surveillance are still the same. This is the rainy season and the roads tend to be terrible,” says Mohamed. “You can’t get to certain places you normally get to, because of the situation on the road. Most of our vehicles can’t make it through the mud.” In those situations, teams work with other United Nations agencies to arrange special humanitarian flights to ship samples.
Frontline staff put their own lives on the line. In April 2020, the polio team lost a colleague due to COVID-19-related infection. Ibrahim Elmi Mohamed, who joined WHO in 2001, was working as a district polio officer in Lower Shabelle. His tragic death, one of many frontline staff around the world due to COVID-19, reminds us of the risks they face every day they go to work.
“Despite overwhelming challenges, teams are committed to continuing their polio work in tandem with the COVID-19 response. It is critical that polio surveillance continues during the pandemic, as Somalia is also fighting outbreaks of vaccine-derived polio type 2 and 3. With polio vaccination campaigns temporarily paused, the teams must be able to track any resulting spread of poliovirus and get ready to respond as soon as it is safe to do so,” says Dr Malik.
“All of us are still doing polio surveillance at the same time as we do surveillance for COVID-19,” says Dr Fatima. “I used to hear from my colleagues that the polio surveillance system is the strongest disease surveillance system. Any polio surveillance team can work in the detection of COVID-19 cases because of the system’s structure, the capacity and experience of the teams.”
Mohamed agrees. “My surveillance coordinator said don’t leave the AFP surveillance behind, follow that normal routine, don’t forget it and leave it aside.’”
As Somalia grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, its trained teams are working quickly to prevent the spread of both COVID-19 and polioviruses. “What gives me hope in the COVID-19 response is when I look behind and I see what we have done with the polio teams, the impact we’ve had on so many lives,” says Mohamed. “We face everything and we overcome it.”
This month, world leaders have joined together to make several important commitments to strengthening public health infrastructure during the COVID-19 response – investments that will go a long way in protecting the most vulnerable communities, including those affected by polio.
On 4 May 2020, heads of government, institutions and industry pledged USD $7.4 billion (of the USD $8 billion goal) to ensure equitable access to new tools for COVID-19 globally. The funding will support the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator, which will help develop new global health technology solutions to test, treat and protect people, and prevent the disease from spreading.
A day later, several donors pledged new funding to Gavi, one of the partners of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), ahead of its upcoming replenishment in June 2020. This funding will not only help vaccinate hundreds of millions of children against diseases such as polio, but also ensure that immunization delivery systems are sustained through the pandemic.
The GPEI greatly appreciates outstanding donor community support for both the COVID-19 response effort and routine immunization programmes around the world.
The GPEI is continuing to do its part to support the COVID-19 pandemic, in solidarity with other health initiatives. In March, the Polio Oversight Board made the recommendation to pause polio vaccination campaigns to limit further spread of the disease. Countries extended their key polio eradication assets, like infrastructure and human resources, to support countries’ COVID-19 response efforts, while continuing essential activities. As of May, GPEI resources, including surveillance laboratories, and social mobilization and communication networks, are supporting COVID-19 response in at least 55 countries.
The pause of vaccination campaigns and the disruption of routine immunization services leaves millions of children at high risk of contracting polio, measles and other vaccine preventable diseases (VPDs). The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that vaccines, against both COVID-19 and VPDs, are crucial to protecting individuals, communities and economies.
As countries continue to implement their COVID-19 response plans, WHO and UNICEF are working with emergency and immunization partners to ensure the polio infrastructure not only supports the response, but also is fully funded in alignment with the ongoing efforts to finance COVID-19. While work is ongoing to cost those requirements, the GPEI hopes that specific COVID funds will be able to contribute towards its response efforts.
It is critical that essential health services and systems, including polio eradication efforts, have necessary support during both the response and recovery phases of this pandemic. While the GPEI has extended its assets to the global COVID-19 response effort, sustaining these programmatic resources is imperative. Continued donor commitments will enable the safe and effective resumption of polio vaccination campaigns as the situation evolves.
“How can I help you?” Pause. “Have you travelled out of the country recently?” Pause. “Please stay on the line. I am connecting you to a doctor,” says a young woman reassuringly to someone at the other end of the line.
The call operator works at the ‘Sehat Tahaffuz1166’ COVID-19 Helpline Centre at the National Emergency Operations Centre (NEOC) for Polio Eradication in Islamabad, Pakistan.
Until last month, Sehat Tahaffuz1166 was a polio eradication helpline to help caregivers share concerns and receive accurate information about polio and other vaccines. As the pandemic spread, the Government expanded the centre to fight COVID-19.
A vital support system during a difficult time
Like many other countries, the global outbreak of COVID-19 poses an enormous challenge to health services in Pakistan. The Sehat Tahaffuz1166 call centre is increasingly becoming an important platform to listen to the concerns of people, provide correct information, and connect them to a doctor when required.
“I received a phone call from a 75-year-old man this morning. He was so scared and confused because of the coronavirus situation. He asked if sunbathing could help him stay protected from the virus,” said Sadia Saleem, a 24 year old helpline agent. “I explained to him the symptoms of the virus, and the preventive measures. He seemed relieved and thanked me,” she added.
Sadia is one of the 55 call agents currently supporting the helpline, which operates in shifts, from 8am to midnight every day, seven days a week.
“I’ve been working for the 1166 helpline since its inception. It’s stressful work but I feel proud that I’m serving the people during this challenging time. In addition to receiving reliable information, I think most people feel some comfort just speaking with someone from the health system,” said Sadia of her experiences.
Alongside the agents, the government has assigned six doctors to support the Helpline. Dr. Rabia Basri is one of them.
“I am forwarded calls that are critical and need expert medical advice. Every day, I receive about forty calls, some twenty minutes long. These are difficult times for everyone. I often advise people about personal hygiene and physical distancing, and if they are having symptoms, help connect them with a hospital for the coronavirus test and further medical support,” said Dr. Rabia.
70,000 calls a day
“Initially, we were receiving about a thousand calls a day. During the National Polio Immunization Campaign in February 2020 for example, people were calling to report missed children, clarify doubts about vaccines and lodge complaints when health and vaccine services were not working,” said Huma Shaukat, the Helpline Liaison Officer.
However, since the outbreak of COVID-19, the call volume has increased dramatically, to about 70,000 calls a day.
“Each call agent responds to about 150 callers a day. To increase the capacity of the helpline, thirty more agents have joined to manage the growing number of calls,” added Huma.
Despite adding more agents, the call volume has become unmanageable for the helpline centre. The situation has prompted the government to assign additional resources. The Digital Pakistan initiative of the Prime Minister’s Office is helping recruit an additional 165 agents while the National Institute of Health is assigning ten more doctors to the technical team.
Managing the 1166 helpline centre
“Training and commitment of call agents are very important. Otherwise the helpline will not work,” said Huma. “We have four supervisors managing the team of call agents and support them when required as the work here is highly challenging, especially now with the high number of calls every day.”
All call agents undergo a comprehensive training on COVID-19 basic information and primary symptoms facilitated by the National Institute of Health, followed by sessions on the helpline technology and interpersonal communication.
“We generate a daily report and share with relevant sections and the helpline management team. This is very important as it helps us review and manage problems, to continue functioning as an efficient helpline supporting people in their time of need,” Huma explained.
With the leadership of the Government of Pakistan and the support of Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) partners – the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), World Health Organization (WHO) and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), the Sehat Tahaffuz1166 Helpline has become an essential support system for the people of Pakistan.
“GPEI partners are supporting the Government in utilizing existing polio eradication resources for the COVID-19 response in Pakistan. We are striving together to support as much as we can to ensure the health and safety of all children and families in the country during this challenging time,” said Dennis Chimenya, the UNICEF C4D team lead supporting the helpline in Pakistan.
The COVID-19 pandemic response requires worldwide solidarity and an urgent global effort. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) stands ready to respond.
GPEI’s response to COVID-19 is driven by two principles. The first is our public health imperative to ensure that the polio programme fully plays its part in the COVID-19 response, supported by our second, underlying principle that when the emergency ends we will be ready to end polio with urgency and determination.
GPEI assets at service of COVID-19 response
The Polio Oversight Board (POB) has agreed that for the next four to six months, GPEI programmatic and operational assets and human resources, from global to country level, will be made available to enable a strong response to COVID-19, while maintaining critical polio functions, such as surveillance and global vaccine supply management.
GPEI will continue to deploy polio-funded personnel to the COVID-19 response and make available coordination mechanisms, such as emergency operations centers, and physical assets such as transportation or IT hardware. Through our extensive front-line worker networks in many countries, we will ensure the collection of information to provide evidence-informed guidance in line with WHO recommendations. At country level, the polio surveillance network is being trained on COVID-19 case detection, case and contact tracing, laboratory testing and data management. Our data management systems and front-line staff are already ramping up action in many countries, and wherever the polio programme has a presence we will continue to serve the response.
GPEI will also seek assurances that when GPEI staff is supporting COVID-19 front line activities, they will be provided with the necessary training, materials, equipment and logistics support to do so safely, in line with infection prevention and control measures. The GPEI is conscious that women, who make up most caregivers and health workers, are likely to bear a heavier burden as the pandemic plays out in polio-affected countries. Their health and safety are a priority and we are working on ways to mitigate impact including making sure that their voices are heard in management and leadership positions.
Pause in immunization campaigns
All countries planning to conduct poliovirus preventative campaigns are advised to temporarily postpone these campaigns until the second half of 2020. Countries which were planning to conduct poliovirus outbreak response campaigns are advised to postpone these campaigns until 1 June 2020 and then reevaluate based on the status of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The final decision to proceed with outbreak response rests with countries, who will need to evaluate the risks of a delayed response to detection of poliovirus against the risks of an immediate response, which could contribute to further spread of SARS-CoV-2 and more cases of COVID-19. Should an outbreak response campaign be pursued, countries should ensure measures needed to uphold infection prevention and control, protect health workers and safeguard the public are in place.
We take this decision with deep regret, knowing more children may be paralyzed by polio as a result. Nonetheless, GPEI believes it is the correct decision, given the imperative to save lives in the current emergency and not contribute to the further spread of COVID-19.
To mitigate the risks of lower immunity levels and to protect children from paralysis, GPEI will continue to work to the extent possible on strengthening essential immunization in the highest-risk areas for spread of poliovirus. This will be carried out under relevant WHO recommendations including the recommendation to prioritize vaccines for outbreak prone diseases such as polio, measles, diphtheria and yellow fever.
To more effectively meet communities’ health needs, the polio network will support delivery of basic services where it has the capacity to do so, including in Afghanistan, for example, through advocating for the establishment of health facilities in the most high-risk areas. We believe that the delivery of such basic services would contribute both to a successful COVID-19 response in these areas and to build trust and valuable engagement opportunities. As soon as it judged safe to do so, GPEI will support countries in conducting the appropriate catch-up vaccination campaigns.
GPEI will place the highest priority on the continuation of poliovirus surveillance (acute flaccid paralysis and environmental) to closely monitor the circulation of wild and vaccine-derived polioviruses. GPEI will provide guidance and active support for countries on issues such as managing disruptions to shipping of stool samples, use of community surveillance and digital platforms and expanding environmental surveillance, where acute flaccid paralysis surveillance cannot be carried out.
Ready to end polio
GPEI will keep momentum on strategic areas to minimize loss of ground. We will ensure that we will come back stronger and faster when the COVID-19 emergency subsides, driven by our determination to achieve a polio-free world.
To prepare for this scale-up GPEI will work over the coming months to ensure the availability and readiness of polio vaccines with the goal of rapidly vaccinating at-risk communities as soon as the situation allows. Work will continue at full speed on the development and use of novel Oral Polio Vaccine type 2, with the aim of rolling out the new vaccine by the third quarter of 2020.
Over the coming months, continued partnership and support from donors and stakeholders will be critical to ensure GPEI continues driving progress toward polio eradication, given the likelihood that postponement of vaccination campaigns will lead to lengthened eradication timelines and increased resource needs. GPEI commits to keeping our donors and other stakeholders updated as the polio programme adjusts to the evolving COVID-19 global emergency.
Solidarity with the most vulnerable.
Eradication is about reaching the unreached and the most vulnerable. GPEI has been able to focus resources and strategies on how best to reach these communities, how to build trust and how to engage with them. These are also relevant challenges for implementing a successful COVID-19 response in the highest risk communities. All those working on and investing in a polio-free world should be proud of their contribution to the challenge of COVID-19. They are providing an important input into stronger health systems and global health security. They are supporting the ability of countries to prepare for and respond to emergencies, and ultimately to serve their most vulnerable.
Now, more than ever, is the time for solidarity and service above self.
The COVID -19 pandemic response requires worldwide solidarity. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) has a public health imperative to ensure that its resources are used to support countries in their preparedness and response. The COVID-19 emergency also means that polio eradication will be affected. We will continue to communicate on impact, plans and guidance as they evolve.