When a 5.9-magnitude earthquake struck south-eastern Afghanistan in the early hours of 22 June 2022, WHO’s polio workers were among the first responders. As dawn broke in Khost and Paktika provinces, and the extent of the devastation became evident, they helped attend to the many injured.

WHO’s polio teams dressed wounds, provided trauma care and generally gave a helping hand wherever needed. This included digging for survivors, putting up tents, unpacking trucks and distributing shipments of WHO emergency and surgical kits, medical supplies and equipment. Polio workers were also involved in the heartbreaking task of preparing the dead for burial.

Here they reflect on their experiences.

Mr Najibullah, District Polio Officer, Gyan district, Paktika

My name is Najibullah, and I am the District Polio Officer for Gyan district in Paktika province. When the earthquake struck Gyan, I was at home, sleeping. I woke up because the house was shaking and dust was falling on me. It was dark and I didn’t know what had happened until I heard people’s shouts.

“We used a tent and beds and chairs from people’s houses and by late morning we had built a small temporary clinic.”

The phones were still working so I called our Provincial Polio Officer and let him know what had happened. I was the first person to report the earthquake in Gyan. After finishing my call, I ran to help rescue the injured.

It was dark but I could see houses were destroyed and could hear people screaming and crying. We used any cars that were available to transport the injured to the nearest clinic for first aid. But there were many injured and the clinic was 4 kilometres away, so we established a makeshift clinic in the village. Our polio staff, who live all over the district, came to help. We used a tent and beds and chairs from people’s houses and by late morning we had built a small temporary clinic.

I have worked for the Polio Eradication Programme in Gyan for 20 years. Over the next 5 days, I used my local knowledge to help guide partners and other agencies, directing them to the most affected areas. I accompanied United Nations partners to every village – anywhere people needed assistance and medical services – and used my familiarity with the region to help map out the UN-wide response.

In Gyan district, we have 11 villages, and more than 19 000 people were affected by the earthquake. It was difficult to move from one village to another because the roads, which are unpaved, were badly damaged by the earthquake.

In such a devastating time of need, I did everything I could to help my people, both day and night. I remember I even helped rescue livestock trapped in the rubble.

Dr Gul Mohammad Marufkhil, Coordinator of the Polio Eradication Programme, Paktika

My name is Dr Gul Mohammad Marufkhil, and I am the coordinator of the polio programme in Paktika province. I was in Sharan district, about 80 kilometres from Gyan, when the earthquake struck.

“We did all we could to make sure we provided support and help to our communities.”

When Mr Najibullah called me to tell me what had happened in Gyan, I immediately called WHO’s field office in Gardez. It was the middle of the night, but I organized an emergency meeting with all our local partners to begin to respond to the earthquake. We requested medical kits, food and tents to be sent to the affected area as soon as possible.

I was tasked with communication, coordination, and arranging aid packages for communities affected by the earthquake. My job was to gather information about the number of injured, the casualties and the level of destruction to buildings and infrastructure and share this with our partners.

In the morning, equipment including medical kits, food packages and tents began to arrive from Gardez, Ghazni, Kabul and Khost. I worked with our teams to transport and distribute these items in both Bermel and Gyan districts.

I am very proud of all our work during that difficult time. We did all we could to make sure we provided support and help to our communities.

Dr Sultan Ahmad, Polio Provincial Officer, Paktika

My name is Dr Sultan Ahmad, and I serve as the Polio Provincial Officer in Paktika province. I was in Urgun, a neighbouring district to Gyan, when the earthquake struck. The shaking woke me up, but there was no destruction near me.

“I managed the flow of injured people to ensure that those who could be treated at Urgun were seen to there and the critically injured transported to Gardez or Kabul.”

After Mr Najibullah called and told me about what had happened in Gyan, I immediately went to the district hospital and alerted the doctors and other staff to prepare to receive the injured. I then dispatched a team of doctors and nurses and 7 ambulances to Gyan as well as to Bermel district, which had also been severely damaged.

As the sun rose, more ambulances and medical teams arrived in Urgun. I managed the flow of injured people to ensure that those who could be treated at Urgun were seen to there and the critically injured transported to Gardez or Kabul for further treatment. When medicines and medical kits began to arrive, I coordinated their distribution to the district clinics where the injured were being treated.

Many, many people were injured as a result of the earthquake, and I am very proud of my role in organizing teams and helping save lives.

Mr. Jan Mohammad, District Polio Officer, Bermel district, Paktika

My name is Jan Mohammad, and I am the District Polio Officer in Bermel district in Paktika province. I was in Bermel when the earthquake happened. I felt the earthquake; it was very strong, so I knew people would be affected. I immediately mobilized our local polio workers to travel with me to the affected area and assist the survivors.

“About 9000 people live in the area but there are no clinics and no doctors, so we provided essential first aid to those in need.”

It took us about 5 hours to drive there. When we arrived, we saw buildings had collapsed and people were trapped. We jumped out of the car and began digging in the rubble to extract people trapped beneath their damaged houses. About 9000 people live in the area but there are no clinics and no doctors, so we provided essential first aid to those in need. As makeshift clinics were set up and mobile health teams arrived, our team facilitated the transportation of the injured to the clinics.

I worked with other UN agencies, using my local knowledge to help guide them to the location of communities where there might be more injured people. I also advised on where to set up temporary clinics and distribution points for food packages to reach as many people as possible.

I took great pride in everything my team did to help the people of my district at such a critical time.

The fight against polio in Pakistan reaches a critical juncture as a high-level delegation from the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) concludes their visit from April 30 to May 3, underscoring the urgency for innovative strategies to reach children not being vaccinated and enhanced political commitment to achieve eradication.

Led by Dr. Chris Elias, Chair of the Polio Oversight Board (POB) and President of Global Development at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the delegation engaged in discussions with Pakistan’s political and security leadership to address persistent challenges in the final stages of eradication efforts. The delegation also comprised of WHO Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean Region, Dr Hanan Balkhy, UNICEF South Asia Regional Director, Sanjay Wijesekera, CDC’s Polio Eradication Branch Chief, Dr Omotayo Bolu, and Trustee Rotary Foundation and National Polio Plus Committee Chair, Aziz Memon.

In Islamabad, they met with Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, Acting Foreign Secretary Rahim Hayat Qureshi, Coordinator to the PM on Health Dr Malik Mukhtar Ahmed Bharath and Pakistan Army’s Engineer-in-Chief Lt-Gen Kashif Nazir.

The POB is the highest decision-making and oversight body of the GPEI – the largest international public health initiative aiming to end polio globally. This was the first high-level GPEI visit to Pakistan since the formation of the new government in March. The focus of the visit was to strengthen political commitment in Pakistan to eradicate polio.

“During my time in Pakistan, I have once again been impressed by the commitment from the federal and provincial governments to stopping polio transmission. With continued commitment across the country from leaders, and at all levels, I know the final push to defeat polio will be possible,” said POB Chair Dr Chris Elias.

The delegation also visited Peshawar and Lahore where they held meetings with the provincial chief ministers of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab as well as provincial health ministers and chief secretaries to discuss their respective provinces’ progress and challenges on polio eradication.

“Engaging with Pakistan’s new political leadership during this visit has demonstrated the commitment of all partners to polio eradication, but we must use the coming months to leverage this commitment wisely, or we risk losing the momentum and the confidence that we can get the job done,” Dr Hanan Balkhy, WHO’s Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean Region.

She added: “Pakistan has the real opportunity to stop the endemic strain of poliovirus that has been restricted to south Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Strengthening the tailored responses to the increased detections of the imported poliovirus in the historic reservoirs is going to be critical to prevent largescale outbreaks in the coming months.”

Pakistan is one of only two polio-endemic countries. The country has made significant progress in reducing polio cases and eliminating diverse poliovirus strains in recent years. However, several challenges persist in its last mile of eradication, including disruptions to vaccination campaigns caused by insecurity, children being missed in vaccine campaigns and community distrust.

“We know what to do; we know how to do it. It is incumbent on all of us – government, health workers, partners and communities – to work together determinedly to keep every child in Pakistan safe from this deadly and preventable disease,” said UNICEF Regional Director for South Asia Mr Sanjay Wijesekera.

Recognizing the significance of tailored strategies, the delegation highlighted the imperative of reaching migrant populations in infected and high-risk districts. Drawing from successful experiences in India, where vaccination efforts focused on thoroughly mapped migrant populations were pivotal, it was stressed that similar approaches are indispensable for further progress. The delegation also underscored the indispensable role of Routine Immunization (RI) in sustaining hard-won gains in polio eradication. Collaboration with the Expanded Programme on Immunization (EPI) was highlighted as paramount, particularly in areas with pressing health needs.

Stronger political commitment was identified as a linchpin for addressing legitimate demands of deprived communities for services and galvanizing health workers. The delegation advocated for leveraging influence and support to engage community influencers, ensuring comprehensive community participation in vaccination.

Aziz Memon, Trustee Rotary Foundation/National Chair, Pakistan PolioPlus Committee said: “Rotary International congratulates the Government of Pakistan on its progress in the fight against polio and encourages a renewed and urgent commitment to addressing the remaining challenges the Polio Programme faces.”

“Rotary has invested almost US$427 million in polio eradication efforts in the country and affirms our continued support to the Polio Programme until the goal is accomplished and all children in Pakistan are protected from polio,” he said.

The visit coincided with the ongoing immunization campaign from April 29 to May 6, aimed at vaccinating over 24.4 million children under the age of five in 91 districts. Amidst these efforts, the GPEI delegation’s engagement signifies a pivotal moment in Pakistan’s fight against polio, urging concerted action and unwavering commitment from all stakeholders.


Polio is a highly infectious disease caused by poliovirus mainly affecting children under the age of five years. It invades the nervous system and can cause paralysis or even death. While there is no cure for polio, vaccination is the most effective way to protect children from this crippling disease. Each time a child under the age of five is vaccinated, their protection against the virus is increased. Repeated immunisations have protected millions of children from polio, allowing almost all countries in the world to become polio-free, except for the two endemic countries of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

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Female mobilizer vaccinators (FMVs) hosting a health education session in a village in Southeastern Afghanistan. The work of FMVs are pivotal in the country’s polio eradication efforts – they share important information on health, immunization, nutrition and hygiene, listen and alleviate the concerns of mothers and caregivers about vaccination, build trust, and vaccinate children against polio. © UNICEF

Spera clinic clings to a shaly mountainside in Khost province, in Afghanistan’s remote Southeast. In the shade of a walnut tree in the clinic’s leafy courtyard, Rezia clears her throat, and holds up a booklet of flip cards. Fifty women sit cross-legged at her feet, listening. The silence is broken only by children murmuring, and birds chirruping in the Spring morning.

Every day, Rezia delivers education sessions on a meticulous rota of topics relevant to the needs of the local women – nutrition, breastfeeding, general health and hygiene, and vaccination. This morning’s session is on the vaccine-preventable diseases that plague remote parts of the country – polio, measles and tetanus. Her rapt audience has walked miles to the clinic, some for two hours or more, carrying the smallest of their children. When Rezia pauses for breath, they waste no time in asking questions.

50 kilometres northeast, the town of Maidan sits in a lush valley where green ears of wheat bob in every spare patch of ground, a stone’s throw from the Pakistan border. In the district clinic, Spozmai is recording the day’s health education sessions in her register. Just today, she spoke to over a hundred women of all ages from the local community.

Rezia and Spozmai are part of the female mobilizer vaccinator (FMV) network – 656 women across Afghanistan whose daily work is to vaccinate children against polio and run health education sessions for women from the local community. In Khost, one FMV has been permanently assigned to every clinic for the last year. Each one is a member of the community she serves. Because of this, she has their ear. This is the FMVs’ superpower.

Maidan and Spera are in the so-called former “white areas”: parts of Afghanistan that, before August 2021, were inaccessible to outsiders, including other Afghans. The communities here are tight knit, self-sustaining and culturally conservative. After decades in isolation, trust is slow to build. This also extends to health care: turning these communities on to vaccination is painstaking work that is best done by an insider.

A girl in Khost Province, Southeastern Afghanistan, shows her marked finger after receiving the polio vaccination. The work of Female Mobiliser Vaccinators has bene crucial in reducing the number of children missing vaccination in the province. © UNICEF

As well as being one of the last two polio-endemic countries, Afghanistan is among the top twenty countries for ‘zero dose’ children globally. The Southeast has the highest number of children missed in the regular polio vaccination campaigns, especially in Khost and neighbouring Paktika. Paktika also has one of the lowest rates of routine immunization countrywide.[1]

It’s a universal human truth that we are less likely to listen to outside voices than we are to trusted members of our own communities. This is especially true for those who live in historically isolated areas. This includes attitudes toward vaccination – for measles and tetanus, but most of all for polio.

Changing people’s minds is the first, and biggest step toward reversing this trend, and women are critical players. “I’m respected in the community,” says Rezia. “I’m a mother, a grandmother – women listen to me. I can persuade the older women, and they want their daughters to have services they didn’t have. It trickles down.”

Afghan community structures are the framework along which information moves, how support is given, and how pressure is gently applied. To change attitudes and behaviours, you need to know how these structures fit together, and where to push. Rezia and Spozmai know who needs to be persuaded first to pass the message forward. Pass information to the right people and, like a drop of ink in water, it spreads.

According to the FMVs, the level of awareness among local women is a critical factor in bridging the immunization gap. Not just knowing when and why to vaccinate their children, but having their questions answered straightforwardly, and by a trusted neighbour, has contributed significantly to changing attitudes toward vaccination. Before the FMV programme began, health information was given by midwives or doctors, but this didn’t always work, especially if the doctor was a man. Rezia smiles: “Men can’t talk to us about things like this. And women wouldn’t listen if they tried.”

As the FMVs know well, change is coming slowly. As Spozmai says, “you can’t bring changes overnight.” Evidence of the impact of the FMVs’ work on vaccine acceptance in these insular parts of the country is to date mostly anecdotal, but copious, nonetheless. Certainly, the directors of clinics and hospitals in the polio high-risk regions of the South, East and Southeast attest to tangible changes in health seeking behaviours among their patient catchment populations since the programme began – especially among women.

When it comes to ending the grip polio and other vaccine-preventable diseases hold over Afghan communities and closing the gap on zero dose children, the FMVs’ role is critical. In health facilities in every corner of the country, these women are the mortar that is slowly filling the gap.

By Kate Pond, UNICEF Afghanistan

[1] From the forthcoming Knowledge, Attitudes and Practices of Polio in Afghanistan, UNICEF Afghanistan (December 2023).

RIYADH (28 APRIL 2024) – Today, at the first-ever World Economic Forum (WEF) Special Meeting hosted in Riyadh, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has pledged US$ 500 million over the next five years to support the work of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI).

This announcement marks a significant increase in funding for the global effort to eradicate polio – a devastating virus that paralyzes and can be fatal for children but is preventable with vaccines. The funds announced today will enable GPEI partners – the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, Rotary International, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the World Health Organization (WHO) – spearheaded by national governments, to protect more than 370 million children with polio vaccines every year. It will also facilitate the delivery of other life-saving interventions like nutritional supplements and bed nets to underserved communities and strengthen health systems to better prepare countries for emerging health threats.

The commitment was made as part of a broader more than US$ 620 million partnership by Saudi Arabia and BMGF to support polio eradication and contribute to other global health initiatives, including the Lives and Livelihood Fund. The partnership was announced at the WEF Special Meeting by His Excellency Dr. Abdullah A. Al Rabeeah, Advisor to the Royal Court and Supervisor General of the King Salman Humanitarian Aid & Relief Centre (KSrelief) and His Excellency Fahad bin Abdurrahman Al-Jalajel, Minister of Health of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, in the presence of Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the WHO, and Bill Gates, co-chair of BMGF.

H.E. Dr. Abdullah A. Al Rabeeah commented, “In Afghanistan and Pakistan, the last remaining polio-endemic countries, we have seen significant progress, yet work remains to be done as the world pushes towards making eradication possible. The pledge from Saudi Arabia today will enhance the innovation and collaboration needed to eradicate this disease. Together with our partners, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, the Islamic Development Bank and key countries across the region, our support will not only aim to end polio but to also strengthen health systems in these countries.”

“This investment towards global health isn’t just a good to have; it’s a strategic imperative for a thriving, more resilient future together,” said H.E. Fahad bin Abdurrahman Al-Jalajel, “the world faces many health challenges, and it is part of our responsibility and leadership to contribute with our partners in bridging the gaps, and through concerted efforts, we will be able to alleviate the suffering of many people.”

Thanks to decades of country leadership and global collaboration in delivering life-saving vaccines to billions of children, wild polio cases have fallen by 99.9% since the GPEI was founded in 1988 under the leadership of the World Health Assembly. More than 20 million people are walking today who would have otherwise been paralyzed by the virus. Just four cases of wild poliovirus have been recorded this year and 12 cases recorded last year in the remaining wild polio endemic countries of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, outbreaks of variant poliovirus, which can emerge in places where not enough children are vaccinated against polio, are increasingly confined to high-risk areas in just four countries – Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, and Yemen. Still, in places where polio remains today, there are serious challenges to reaching all children with polio vaccines and other life-saving interventions, including vaccine misinformation, political insecurity, environmental disasters, and broader humanitarian crises.

“For decades, polio inflicted lifelong suffering on children and families. Today, we take another step toward finally eradicating it, thanks to the generous contributions of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. When we invest in eradicating polio, we make immunization and health systems more resilient, we equip nations to better respond to public health challenges, and most importantly, we ensure that more children will be able to live healthy lives,” said Bill Gates.

The announcement builds on a long history of support from Saudi Arabia and regional partners to the global polio eradication effort as well as across the Eastern Mediterranean – the last region where wild polio is endemic. For more than two decades, Saudi Arabia has not only financially supported the GPEI, but has also advocated for polio eradication and access to other life-saving vaccines in the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond. This support ranges from championing the cause among communities and religious leaders to advocating within major global convenings like the G20 and regional forums like the World Health Organization’s Eastern Mediterranean Regional Subcommittee for Polio Eradication and Outbreaks.

“Reaching all children with lifesaving vaccines is critical to ending polio and protecting children and communities everywhere from other preventable diseases and emerging health threats,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “With this new funding, Saudi Arabia will help to protect children in even the hardest-to-reach areas, and move towards a healthier, polio-free world.”

“This important support will help bring us one step closer to eradicating polio once and for all,” said Catherine Russell, UNICEF Executive Director. “Together with communities, health workers, global partners, and donors like Saudi Arabia, we can help ensure that no child suffers from paralysis or dies from polio, and that more children have access to better health systems.”

To strengthen Afghanistan’s health systems and encourage a continued focus on achieving polio eradication in one of the world’s last polio-endemic countries, Saudi Arabia and the Gates Foundation have pledged US$ 3 million and US$ 15 million respectively over three years to support the Polio Legacy Challenge. This Challenge is a results-based financing initiative spearheaded by ministers of health in the region, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Qatar, under the auspices of the WHO EMRO Regional Subcommittee on Polio Eradication and Outbreaks.

Also today, as the Islamic Development Bank (IsDB) celebrates its 50th anniversary, Saudi Arabia announced US$ 100 million in new funding to support the IsDB’s Lives and Livelihoods Fund (LLF), which aims to lift the poorest out of poverty across 33 IsDB member countries through investments in primary health care, eliminating preventable infectious diseases like polio, supporting smallholder farming and rural agriculture, and improving basic infrastructure. This follows the UAE’s renewed pledge of US $50 million to the LLF announced earlier this week, continuing its support for the largest development fund in the region, which aids millions in low-income communities.

On the occasion, IsDB President Dr. Muhammad Al Jasser stated: “The Islamic Development Bank warmly welcomes the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s generous contribution to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. This vital support strengthens GPEI’s efforts to eliminate this devastating disease. We’re proud that IsDB and ISFD, our poverty alleviation arm, have been among the top financiers for Pakistan’s polio eradication efforts, providing over US$ 555 million since 2012.”

“We also applaud the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s new funding for the Lives and Livelihoods Fund. This innovative initiative tackles poverty barriers faced by families, communities, and entire countries. We express our sincere gratitude to all partners, existing and new, for their continued collaboration and commitment. Together, through these concerted efforts, we can achieve the critical last-mile results needed to create a truly polio-free world,” added the IsDB President.

Additional quotes on the funding announcement:

Mike McGovern, Chair of the International PolioPlus Committee at Rotary International, said: “I extend heartfelt gratitude to Saudi Arabia for their commitment to the cause of polio eradication, which has been instrumental in advancing our collective mission towards a polio-free world. Together, we’ve witnessed the remarkable resilience of the polio eradication program, proving that with full support and collaboration, we can overcome any obstacle in our path. Let us continue to stand united in our efforts until polio is eradicated, ensuring a healthier, safer future for generations to come.”

Dr. Sania Nishtar, CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, said: “This new commitment from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will not only help us achieve a polio-free world, it will help countries build stronger health systems, protecting families, communities and economies from other existing and emerging health threats.”

About the Global Polio Eradication Initiative

The Global Polio Eradication Initiative is a public-private partnership, spearheaded by national governments, WHO, Rotary International, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, UNICEF, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. Since its launch in 1988, this partnership has helped prevent more than 20 million cases of paralysis, prevented more than 1.5 million childhood deaths and reduced the incidence of wild poliovirus by 99.9 percent, from more than 350,000 cases in more than 125 endemic countries, to twelve cases in two endemic countries in 2023.

Media Contact: Ally Rogers, Global Health Strategies (arogers@globalhealthstrategies.com)

About Islamic Development Bank (IsDB) Group

Rated AAA by the major rating agencies of the world, the Islamic Development Bank is the premier multilateral development bank of the Global South that has been working for 50 years to improve the lives of the communities it serves by delivering impact at scale. The Bank brings together 57 Member Countries across four continents, touching the lives of nearly 1 in 5 of the world population. Its mission is to equip people to drive their own economic and social progress at scale, putting the infrastructure in place enabling them to fulfil their potential. Headquartered in Jeddah, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, IsDB has regional hubs and centers of excellence in 11 of its Member Countries. Over the years, the Bank has evolved from a single entity into a group comprising five entities: Islamic Development Bank (IsDB), the Islamic Development Bank Institute (IsDBI) tasked with research and training, the Islamic Corporation for the Insurance of Investment and Export Credit (ICIEC), the Islamic Corporation for the Development of the Private Sector (ICD), and the International Islamic Trade Finance Corporation (ITFC).

Each year at the end of April, the global community commemorates World Immunization Week, reminding us of what humanity can achieve when we come together and take action for our collective health. Given that I began my career working in a national immunization programme, known as the Expanded Programme on Immunization, also commonly known as the Essential Programme on Immunization or EPI, I am encouraged to see the world mark another, related milestone this year: the 50th anniversary of EPI.  Building on the success of the global smallpox eradication effort, EPI was launched in 1974 to expand national routine immunization services around the world and reduce the deaths and disabilities caused by common vaccine preventable diseases. Over the last 50 years, EPI has saved 154 million lives, reduced infant deaths by more than 40 percent, and protected millions from disability. While WHO now recommends 13 vaccines across the life course for the EPI programme, six were recommended at its inception: Bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG), diphtheria, measles, pertussis, tetanus, and polio.

Polio has been a part of EPI from the very beginning, and it will be essential for the polio eradication and EPI programmes to continue working together within the Eastern Mediterranean Region and globally as we aim to achieve another eradication goal: ending polio once and for all.

Only one serotype of the wild poliovirus remains (WPV1), and it exists in limited geographic areas within just two countries in the world, Afghanistan and Pakistan. While many national, regional, and global factors have contributed to this progress, a key element has been collaboration between the polio eradication and EPI programmes. Countries in the Eastern Mediterranean Region such as Egypt and Iran have built strong national EPI programmes that maintain high levels of routine immunization coverage to ward off outbreaks, eliminate measles, collaborate with the polio eradication programme to stop outbreaks quickly when detected, and prevent transmission. In countries like Iraq, Libya, Sudan, and Syria, where immunization coverage is lower due to more complex operating environments, polio assets are being transitioned and integrated into the broader EPI programme so that polio programme capabilities in emergency operations and disease surveillance can be applied to controlling other diseases. Additionally, the efforts of the Regional Subcommittee for Polio Eradication and Outbreaks have not only helped make this transition of polio assets a reality, but have also brought Member States together to help both the EPI and polio eradication programmes access more children across the Region.

Global Polio Eradication Initiative partners in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the last two polio-endemic countries, have jointly established health centres and vaccination facilities that provide routine immunization, health check-ups, and polio vaccines in areas lacking facilities. In areas with weak or absent health facilities, health camps are conducted to vaccinate all children. Programmes routinely  implement integrated polio and measles campaigns to control both diseases. In Afghanistan, the polio programme began a strategic partnership with humanitarian organizations in 12 high-risk provinces to add routine vaccines including polio into their portfolios of basic health services. More than 1 million polio vaccinations have been delivered through this engagement with humanitarian groups between January and October 2023. And in February 2024 alone, biker teams under the Nomads Vaccination Initiative launched in late 2022 in Pakistan gave polio drops to more than 30,000 children in nomadic settlements in 17 districts, delivered over 11,000 doses of the inactivated polio vaccine (IPV), and administered 12,000 doses of routine vaccines. The biker teams continue to expand the scope of their vaccination efforts.

The planning, operational and monitoring intensity of the polio eradication programmes helps EPI through use of common microplanning tools to map and reach all children, identify zero-dose children, and shine a light on areas with weak or absent immunization delivery.  Joint advocacy efforts foster greater political commitment and funding support to improve EPI.

Polio Eradication in the Eastern Mediterranean Region has learned important lessons and gained valuable experiences through ongoing innovations to vaccinate children in countries affected by conflict, insecurity and inaccessibility, fragile health systems and highly vulnerable populations.  These experiences have helped EPI programmes in countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Sudan. Certainly, more can and should done to leverage the capacities of both the polio eradication and the EPI programmes in such countries.

One of the most critical success factors in polio-endemic countries, across our Region, and around the world has been the exchange of workers between the polio and EPI programmes. Like me, many health workers have started their careers in a national EPI programme and then moved to the polio eradication programme, or vice versa. This exchange of human resources between programmes has led to a sharing of knowledge and experiences that has contributed to the achievements that we have seen in both programmes over the last half-century.

While polio eradication has very specific targets to achieve, the goals of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI)and those linked to the Essential Programme on Immunization such as the Immunization Agenda 2030 share many similarities and ultimately depend on establishing and maintaining access to children who have not been regularly reached with any vaccines. I am confident that we can continue to strengthen both the polio eradication and EPI programmes, end polio, and achieve the IA2030 goals and more over the next 50 years. We will accomplish this by advocating for the continued investments needed to end polio and reduce the burden of vaccine-preventable diseases, and by continuing to collaborate and share our expertise and lessons learned, both in the Eastern Mediterranean and globally.

Countries around the world are grappling with an alarming rise in measles, a deadly, yet vaccine-preventable disease. Last month, the US CDC issued a health alert over rising cases across the US, where 113 measles cases have been reported this year, already exceeding the total number of cases last year. And across European and Central Asian countries, measles cases went from under a thousand in 2022 to more than 30,000 in 2023. 

As a survivor of a vaccine-preventable disease, I understand more than most just how important it is to reverse this trend. Six months after I was born in Bombay, India, I contracted polio, which left me paralyzed from the hips down. At the time, polio vaccines weren’t widely available in India, and as a result, I never received the life-saving drops that could have protected me from this crippling disease.

I wasn’t alone – in the 1970’s when I was born, India struggled with almost 200,000 polio cases each year. This isn’t surprising—before vaccines became common, diseases we hardly think about now, like polio, plagued the world and caused unnecessary death and immense suffering. Before the measles vaccine was introduced in the early 1960’s, the disease used to kill an estimated 2.6 million people annually.

To ensure all children benefit from the power of vaccines and are protected from the ravages of preventable diseases like measles, we must heed the lessons of successful vaccination efforts, such as the global push to eradicate polio.

Since a global effort to eradicate the disease through vaccination began in 1988, polio cases have been reduced by 99.9%. And a decade ago last week, one of the seemingly insurmountable challenges to the eradication effort was achieved: India, a country with limited means and facing unlimited challenges, was certified as polio-free, along with the entire South-East Asia Region.

Today, countries are pushing to replicate India’s success in the virus’s remaining strongholds, particularly in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where only 12 cases were recorded last year. I believe we can get to zero cases anywhere in the world by fully harnessing the power of vaccines, learning from India’s remarkable story, and refusing to concede defeat.

India was once deemed the most difficult country in the world to end polio. Poor sanitation and overcrowded living spaces allowed the virus to spread easily, infecting hundreds of thousands of children each year, making it nearly impossible to control.

Strong support from the Indian government coupled with a new global push to eradicate the disease in the late 1980s marked a turning point. Soon after, vaccination campaigns led by millions of dedicated vaccinators and community mobilizers on the frontlines resulted in the repeated distribution of life-saving vaccines to nearly every child in the country. In the years leading up to the last case, a staggering 1 billion doses of the polio vaccine were distributed to 172 million children annually. Mass vaccination campaigns, requiring over 2 million vaccinators at a time, reached every household.

After the last case, India was determined to keep the country polio-free. Impressive surveillance networks and immunization campaigns continued on, which I got to witness in 2015 when I returned to India with Rotary International. Administering two drops of the vaccine to babies in the backstreets of New Delhi was a profound, full-circle moment for me – from my mother’s lack of access to the vaccine, to my own struggle with polio, to ensuring my daughter received the necessary immunization.

Today, strategies pioneered in India are being used to eliminate wild polio from Pakistan and Afghanistan, the final two endemic countries for wild poliovirus. And in both countries, promising trends that were seen in India, such as fewer strains of the virus and smaller outbreaks, suggest that the virus may be permanently on its way out.

There’s no denying that there are still serious challenges to vaccinating all children in areas where the virus is still a threat – from complex humanitarian emergencies, ongoing conflicts, a lack of trust in governments and science, to difficulties reaching remote populations.

The push to end polio today has relied on continuing to innovate. Strategies started in India have continued to be refined to meet today’s challenges – from vaccinating hard-to-reach populations through community microplanning and empowering women health workers to address vaccine hesitancy have been refined and improved. And in particularly fragile settings, recent collaborations with humanitarian organizations have demonstrated the value of integrating polio initiatives with broader health services.

What gives me hope is that today, we have the tools and strategies needed to end needless suffering caused by polio and other preventable diseases around the world. What we still need is the continued resolve to get us there. As India’s blueprint showed us, unwavering support from donors and global organizations, coupled with the ongoing determination from communities, local leaders, and national governments will be essential.

With more countries around the world heading into elections this year than ever before, I hope to see policymakers in the US and abroad continue to commit to eradicating polio and strengthening access to other life-saving vaccines. With the right level of commitment and resources, we can end polio everywhere and protect children against other preventable diseases.

By Minda Dentler

Minda Dentler, a 2017 Aspen Institute New Voices Fellow, is a polio survivor, a global health advocate, author, and the first female wheelchair athlete to complete the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii.

The stories below highlight some ways in which women are breaking barriers, driving change and inching us closer to a polio-free world wherever they take charge – from doorsteps to laboratories to decision-making tables.

Driving regional solidarity for polio eradication

Dr Hanan Balkhy, WHO Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean

Dr Hanan Balkhy made history in February 2024 when she became the first woman to take up the post of WHO Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean. With unwavering determination, she embarked on her new role with a clear vision: to eradicate polio during her tenure.

In her nomination speech, she shared her inspiration, drawn from success stories of joint efforts across the WHO Eastern Mediterranean Region. Dr Balkhy fervently believes in the need for collective action to overcome the obstacles in the path to polio eradication.

Dr Balkhy will convene the Regional Subcommittee for Polio Eradication and Outbreaks. To champion the Region’s work to consign polio to history, she will support the regional polio eradication programme, remove obstacles and work closely with global and regional decision-making bodies.

She calls upon all stakeholders to unite with resolute determination until polio becomes nothing more than a distant memory.

Blazing a trail with the Regional Subcommittee

Her Excellency Dr Hanan Mohamed Al Kuwari, Minister of Public Health, Qatar 

An inspiration to women globally, Qatari Minister of Public Health H.E. Dr Hanan Mohamed Al Kuwari has been harnessing decision-makers’ power to galvanize action for polio eradication.

As Co-Chair of the Regional Subcommittee for Polio Eradication and Outbreaks since 2022, she has created a strong sense of solidarity among Member States of the Region and partners, reminding them of the urgent need to prioritize polio eradication. Using every possible chance to highlight the challenges faced by countries with wild or variant poliovirus cases, she has mobilized action to reach vulnerable children with polio vaccines and other health services.

Dr Al Kuwari has used her platform and voice to reveal issues faced by polio eradicators in the Region and offer solutions. At the same time, she has raised the visibility of the trailblazing Regional Subcommittee’s goals and work.

Read more on the WHO EMRO website.

In Nangahar, eastern Afghanistan, Lailuma, a female mobiliser vaccinator (FMV), facilitating a session on polio, vaccine preventable diseases and child health with women in the locality. FMVs organize these kind of awareness sessions for women every day in hundreds of locations across the country – their role is crucial in reaching mothers and their children with vital health services and immunization against polio and other deadly diseases. © UNICEF/UNI530951/Karimi
In Nangahar, eastern Afghanistan, Lailuma, a female mobiliser vaccinator (FMV), facilitating a session on polio, vaccine preventable diseases and child health with women in the locality. FMVs organize these kind of awareness sessions for women every day in hundreds of locations across the country – their role is crucial in reaching mothers and their children with vital health services and immunization against polio and other deadly diseases. © UNICEF/UNI530951/Karimi

It’s midmorning in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province in south Afghanistan. The sun, climbing rapidly, has already burned through the wintry dawn. Inside the maternity ward of the Bost Provincial Hospital – the second biggest health care facility in the Southern Region – seven women nurse their newborn babies. The mother of the youngest bathes her just-born son’s face with a warm cloth. The eldest, at two hours’ old, is getting her first childhood vaccinations – BCG, hepatitis B and polio.

Here in Bost hospital, like every maternity facility in Afghanistan, babies are vaccinated in their first few hours of life. In any 24-hour period, the UNICEF-backed female vaccinators will vaccinate dozens of babies in this hospital alone. Some are medically trained to administer intravenous vaccinations, and others – known as female mobilizer vaccinators, or FMVs – are women from the local community, who administer polio drops and run health education sessions.  FMVs are not just vaccinators: they are the first line advocates for polio eradication. They are a familiar face to the local community who provides sound advice and information for good health of their children and family members.

Introduced in 2020 as a pilot in three provinces, the FMV programme has since then expanded to 20 out of the country’s 34 provinces. Today, there are over 650 FMVs reaching thousands of women and children every day in hundreds of locations countrywide. The FMV programme also helps alleviate some of the burden on the national health system: the pastoral care service the FMVs provide frees up doctors, nurses and midwives to concentrate on their life-saving work. Some of the FMVs are trained nurses or midwives, and pitch in to help when an extra pair of hands are needed.

A child receives polio drops as part of the routine immunization service at a temporary health facility near the Torkham border crossing in Eastern Afghanistan. © UNICEF/UNI530949/Karimi
A child receives polio drops as part of the routine immunization service at a temporary health facility near the Torkham border crossing in Eastern Afghanistan. © UNICEF/UNI530949/Karimi

The FMVs are a unique group when it comes to reaching women. In the eastern part of the country where the polio virus persists, communities are also historically culturally conservative: here it really is a woman’s work to inform other women. Women are usually the primary caregivers, reaching more women means reaching more children, reducing missed vaccinations and broadening the cohort of fully immunized children. Moreover, they can reach all women, even getting the message to those who are unable to leave the house because they do not have a mahram– a male family member who acts as a chaperone, usually a husband, father, or brother.

Health education sessions run by FMVs include all important components for mothers and children’s health -– from nutrition to childhood diseases, breastfeeding, general hygiene and the importance of vaccination to protect children deadly diseases like measles and polio. Four times a day in hospitals and clinics from Kandahar to Mazar, women crowd into spaces transformed into temporary classrooms, presided over by an FMV with a handheld flipchart. Every session is packed.

One such session, on the importance of sanitation to prevent the spread of polio, is going on in a sunny courtyard of a health facility in Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan. Rows of women listen attentively to Lailuma, an FMV who lives in the locality, while children play at their feet. The occasional burst of children’s laughter break the rapt silence.

At a temporary health facility in Eastern Afghanistan, near the Torkham border crossing point with Pakistan, a female mobiliser vaccinator marks the finger after administering the polio vaccine to an Afghan boy who has recently returned from Pakistan. © UNICEF/UNI530950/Karimi
At a temporary health facility in Eastern Afghanistan, near the Torkham border crossing point with Pakistan, a female mobiliser vaccinator marks the finger after administering the polio vaccine to an Afghan boy who has recently returned from Pakistan. © UNICEF/UNI530950/Karimi

This is a unique programme, tailored for the complex realities of Afghanistan. Attitudes toward vaccination and healthcare differ between regions, provinces, and even between families. There is no single approach that would suit a country as culturally complex as Afghanistan. The FMVs are deeply embedded in the community that they serve, and their patients are family members, friends and neighbours. They have their trust, which is half the battle won.

“Women in our culture are more responsive to a certain approach,” Hadiya, the FMV supervisor in Lashkar Gah, explains. “They need privacy, politeness, a relaxed atmosphere, before they can settle down to listen.”

Since the FMV programme began, vaccination rates, community awareness levels and, by extension, general trust in the healthcare system, have increased across Afghanistan.[1] The FMVs are the community’s first and trusted source of health information, who also play a pivotal role in identifying children  missing vaccinations. Health seeking behaviour and visit to health facilities have  also risen as a direct result of women’s increased levels of knowledge.

Despite challenges, the FMVs are driving the polio eradication programme forward, one family at a time. In Jalalabad, Lailuma remains positive: “Inshallah polio will be eradicated. Achievements feel small, but if we keep going we will succeed, and it will be gone from Afghanistan forever.”

(All names have been changed.)

By Kate Pond, UNICEF Afghanistan 

[1] UNICEF, Formative Assessment on the Effectiveness of the Deployment of Female Mobiliser Vaccinators (FMV) in Polio High-Risk Locations, May 2023.

My name is Farid, and I am 35 years old. I live in the Bati Kot district of Nangarhar province. I contracted polio when I was three years old. The symptoms started with a fever, then a weakness in my left leg and weakness in my left hand. While strength eventually returned to my hand, my leg remained weak. My parents took me to the doctor. After medical examinations, the doctors said that I had polio and there is no cure. When my parents heard that I could not be treated, they took me home.

Growing up with a paralyzed leg created many challenges for me. I couldn’t play with other children but I never lost hope. I fought to live my life like other children in my community. I started attending school, then completed my studies in computer science. My parents were always supportive, especially in my studies and building my career.

In my personal life, I also encountered challenges. When I wanted to get married, I faced rejection four times from different families. They did not want to marry their daughters to me because they said I have a disability and cannot work. I’m happy my wife’s family accepted me and I now have four beautiful children. I make sure to vaccinate my children at every opportunity. I don’t want them to be affected by poliovirus like I was. I also encourage my neighbors to vaccinate their children whenever they have the opportunity.

My daily life is challenging and I face many obstacles. There are certain tasks and jobs that my relatives, friends, and neighbors can do, but I cannot. I have some land in my village where I grow things like wheat and corn to help feed my family. Because my paralysed leg prevents me from cultivating my land, I pay someone to do this for me. This often brings me disappointment.

Because I know firsthand the danger of poliovirus and how it can affect the lives of children and their families, I joined the polio eradication programme in 2017. I work as a supervisor, and my job is to train vaccination teams under my supervision. I prepare them for vaccination campaigns, make sure they receive enough vaccines and equipment, monitor their work and report their achievements at the end of each day during the campaign. On campaign days, I go out and make sure all is working well for the teams, that they have everything they need and that all children in my area receive the polio vaccine.

For those who do not want to vaccinate their children, I go to their houses and tell them that the only way to protect their children from poliovirus is by vaccinating them with two drops of polio vaccine. I also tell them that if you don’t vaccinate your children, they could be paralysed like me. I share my personal story with them and challenges that I face in daily life. In our village, we used to have many vaccine refusals, but now they are few because I take the time to talk with parents and carers and explain my situation.

Even when we are not having vaccination campaigns, I talk with people and raise awareness about poliovirus and the importance of polio vaccine. We must vaccinate our children against polio at every opportunity. Polio is a terrible, crippling disease and we cannot let any child be paralysed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Legacy of Healing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bonds That Strengthen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Huma is eager to start working for polio eradication again.

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

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

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

Integration involves using polio tools, staff, expertise, and other resources to deliver important health interventions alongside polio vaccines – from measles vaccines and other essential immunizations to birth registration, counselling on breastfeeding, hand soap and more. It also includes incorporating polio vaccines into other planned health interventions when possible, delivering more services with fewer resources. 

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to integration. From the remaining endemic countries to countries affected by variant poliovirus outbreaks, activities must be country-driven and adapted to fit the unique challenges and needs of different communities.

Humanitarian engagement in Afghanistan: 

In Afghanistan, supplementary immunization activities are essential to vaccinating children. However, in the context of an unprecedented humanitarian crisis and extremely fragile health system, integrating polio efforts with other health services has helped the program reach even more children. 

Endemic transmission of WPV1 in Afghanistan has been restricted to the east region. Remaining pockets of inaccessible, unvaccinated children amid a broader humanitarian crisis pose challenges to stopping the virus for good. Today, more than two-thirds of the country’s population is in serious need of food, clean water, functioning sanitation facilities, and basic health services. 

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

Building upon a strategy that has been in place for several years, ongoing collaboration with humanitarian organizations has demonstrated the value of integrating polio efforts with other health needs in the country. In 2023, the program began engagement with ten humanitarian partners operating in 12 high-risk provinces for polio across Afghanistan. Through these collaborations, the program and its partners have mapped and supported communities that lack basic health services, which has helped better identify and reach children still vulnerable to polio.  

Between January and October 2023, more than 1 million polio vaccinations have been delivered through the engagement with humanitarian partners. Through this effort, it’s estimated that more than 30,000 children have been vaccinated who would have otherwise remained inaccessible to the polio program during its standard campaigns¹.

The Far-Reaching Integrated Delivery partnership in Somalia: 

In Somalia, children are at high risk of encountering and spreading the poliovirus due to longstanding security challenges and a lack of health infrastructure, particularly in the south-central part of the country. As a result, the country has historically low routine immunization levels and faces the world’s longest-running outbreak of type 2 variant poliovirus

A health worker administers polio vaccine (nOPV2) drops to a child at Luley IDP camp during a door-to-door polio  immunization campaign in Kahda district, Mogadishu, Somalia on May 28, 2023. © Ismail Taxta/Getty Images
A health worker administers polio vaccine (nOPV2) drops to a child at Luley IDP camp during a door-to-door polio immunization campaign in Kahda district, Mogadishu, Somalia on May 28, 2023. © Ismail Taxta/Getty Images

To help address these challenges, in October 2022, the GPEI partnered with the World Food Program Innovation Hub, Save the Children, Acasus, and World Vision’s CORE group, amongst others, to launch the Far-Reaching Integrated Delivery (FARID) partnership. The partnership’s primary goal is to stop poliovirus transmission and reduce deaths from preventable diseases and malnutrition.  

To do this, the polio program and its partners have established a series of health camps across 20 districts in the country that provide families with vaccinations for polio and other infectious diseases, maternal health services, nutrition screening and supplements, and primary health consultations². These camps are tailored to address each community’s specific needs and aim to re-establish sustainable health systems that will continue providing primary health services on a routine basis. 

Between October 2022 and June 2023, FARID partners have visited 136 high-risk communities in Somalia, reaching almost 30,000 people; vaccinating more than 8,000 children, 6,000 of which had never received any kind of vaccine; and conducting over 10,000 maternal health and 4,000 nutrition consultations³. 

Read more about the polio program’s latest integration efforts here. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continuing work in endemic countries

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

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

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

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

Progress on variant polio outbreaks

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

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

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

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

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

A global effort

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Supporting healthcare system resilience to climate change  

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

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

 Pakistan Polio Eradication Program

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 About the Agence Française de Développement

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


About the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally published by the Islamic Development Bank on 3 December 2023


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Since 1988, the number of children affected by polio has reduced by 99 per cent. While the end of polio is within reach, immunization efforts can easily be derailed by the rapid spread of vaccine misinformation, putting vulnerable children at risk.

Take for example Pakistan, one of the two countries where polio remains endemic, where fake videos of children falling sick after receiving polio vaccination spread like wildfire on social media a few years ago. The misinformation caused mass panic and derailed long-fought efforts to immunize millions of children across the country.

While it is near impossible to eliminate misinformation after it has spread, national health systems can actively monitor for and address misinformation as it arises. This is where the Digital Community Engagement (DCE) initiative is proving effective. Based on the Vaccine Misinformation Management Guide, the DCE was launched as a first-of-its kind misinformation management model in 2021 by UNICEF and The Public Good Projects.

The DCE is made up of a central hub that tracks polio misinformation online, develops accurate messaging, and supports digital volunteers and UNICEF country offices. The hub is driven by a global team of experts spread across public health, social behaviour change, online social listening, advertising, content design and influencer marketing.

“In many countries, UNICEF and partners are already working to combat online misinformation in various ways. DCE’s aim is not to replace these systems but strengthen their existing efforts,” said Adnan Shahzad, the Digital Communication Manager of the UNICEF Polio Eradication Team.

The polio ‘listening post’  

“Social listening is like a disease surveillance system, but instead of the virus, we track and analyze misinformation. Using cutting-edge digital media and tools we collect and analyze publicly available data on polio and vaccines across social media, digital media, broadcast news and print media platforms,” said Shahzad.

In 2022, over 5 million online social listening results were analysed from 41 countries in more than 100 languages. The most common misinformation pieces claimed that vaccines were unsafe and that they could cause other diseases. Other fear-inducing misinformation involved how vaccines are being used by rich countries or individuals to control the world and depopulate certain continents.

Misinformation pieces are analysed and categorised as low, medium or high risks based on its potential impact to vaccination efforts and how quickly it is spreading. When a high-risk misinformation is going viral (within a 24-hour period), the DCE central hub sends an urgent alert to UNICEF country and regional offices and also sends a weekly compilation of news and alerts in the form of a newsletter

Examples of high-risk misinformation alerted to country teams:

Clear and accurate messages are crucial

“What we say must be accurate and easy to understand for everyone,” says Soterine Tsanga, Polio Outbreak Response SBC specialist with UNICEF, who is also involved in the roll out of DCE to countries. “When there’s a polio outbreak, our goal is to respond swiftly to reach children with vaccination and stop further spread of the virus. We cannot afford to have our own messaging causing confusion among mothers and fathers,” she adds.

Backed by scientific evidence and facts, messages on polio are carefully prepared at the DCE hub in English, French, Urdu and Pashto. The team organizes content into a bank for quick retrieval based on reoccurring themes, such as vaccine effectiveness, safety and side effects.

 Quashing rumours

“A big part of UNICEF’s social behaviour change work for polio eradication involves engaging local community mobilisers who continuously listen to concerns about vaccines, clarify doubts and encourage parents and caregivers to vaccinate their children. DCE is the online version of this approach aimed at engaging online communities to quash false information before it becomes viral,” said Sheeba Afghani, the Chief of Social Behaviour Change with the UNICEF Polio Eradication Programme.

The DCE hub recruits digital volunteers through an interactive online platform called uInfluence to promote accurate polio and vaccine information. Digital volunteers or ‘uInfluencers’ are everyday social media users, many of them young people who are already active in online communities.

“I grew up seeing many people suffering from polio and other diseases. We struggled to find solutions for the problems in our community.  I want to help by being a source of accurate information about polio,” said Liam, a 26-year-old digital volunteer.

20-year-old Mariam is a first-year student in Management living in Dakar, Senegal. In her spare time, she supported UNICEF as a digital volunteer for a media campaign to share information about polio, tracking misinformation and responding to questions about polio. © UNICEF/Joire

Liam is one of 75,000 digital volunteers working with uInfluence. They repurpose content shared by uInfluence on Facebook and Instagram, dispel vaccine and polio misinformation, and increase engagement on social posts. In 2022, content posted through uInfluence channels and amplified by digital volunteers reached 74 million people.

DCE’s general population advertisement (ad) campaign has also yielded positive results.  An ad campaign in January 20203 on Facebook and Instagram encouraged parents and caregivers between ages 18–45 years in Egypt, Mozambique, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, Togo and Zambia to visit the “Polio Facts” page on the uInfluence website. By March 2023, the campaign had reached 7.6 million parents. A post-campaign survey with the target populations helped identify knowledge, attitudes, and perceptions about vaccine safety, efficacy (See Figure 1.) , and polio risk, likelihood of vaccinating children, recommending the vaccine to others, and sharing information on the vaccine.

Local outreach and digital engagement

“The concept behind establishing the DCE central hub was to offer enduring tools for country offices, enabling them to craft localized digital health communications and establish a system that mirrors the central hub,” said Andrea Valencia, the Global Program Manager at PGP.

“DCE presents a significant opportunity for countries to prioritize their communication efforts by employing best practices in messaging. This enables them to bridge the gap between their on-the-groundwork and digital communities, while fostering trust in childhood immunization,” she added.

Pakistan’s polio eradication programme has managed several misinformation crises in the past, many of them about the polio vaccine. In October 2022, a Facebook post falsely claimed that a child had died after receiving the polio vaccine in Balochistan, when in fact she had succumbed to severe pneumonia. The polio social media team responded quickly with a video message from the doctor who had examined the child, stating the real cause of death. Meta and the Pakistan Telecom Authority were alerted as it posed a high risk to the polio vaccination campaign. Meta’s independent Fact Check Team called Soch launched an independent investigation and published an articlediscrediting the misinformation.

Proportion of parents and caregivers in Egypt, Mozambique, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, Togo and Zambia who believe vaccines are effective in protecting children from polio (DCE’s general population ad campaign Jan-March 2023)

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, UNICEF is tapping into its network of young fact checkers (Veilleurs du Web) and U-Reporters to tackle misinformation online and offline using DCE tools. During a polio vaccination campaign in July 2023, U-Reporters spoke with mothers and fathers about polio vaccines in markets, churches and mosques while the fact checkers tracked and responded to fake news and rumours related to polio vaccines.

In Afghanistan, religious leaders are building trust in polio vaccines through their sermons in madrassas, or Islamic schools, and mosques. In Kandahar, an Islamic radio programme helps assuage fears and misinformation about vaccines. The national authorities have also offered their support in managing polio vaccine misinformation. Moving forward, the country is planning to establish a misinformation management taskforce at regional and national level to effectively manage polio vaccine misinformation.

In Yemen, DCE trainings helped the Ministry of Public Health, Social Services Centre, Community Radio stations and a Helpline for Internally Displaced Persons collaborate in establishing basic tools to track rumours and misinformation. They have also expanded the existing COVID-19 helpline managed by medical doctors to track misinformation, respond with accurate information on other health issues, and shar monthly reports with all health partners. Based on the DCE polio message bank model, Yemen is now developing similar resources on measles and oral cholera vaccines.

More opportunities ahead

“DCE can be used for other programmes too.  It is an invaluable asset for countering misinformation in health, immunization, and other programmes for the well-being of children,” said Shahzad.

While there has been tremendous progress in getting the social listening and misinformation alert systems up and running, there is always more to do. DCE is now focused on strengthening local misinformation response teams while continuing to engage online communities through digital volunteers.

For Gulzar Ahmed Khan, a 28-year-old polio social mobilizer in Pakistan, tracking and addressing polio misinformation is more important than ever.

“Where I work, people have poor understanding of health matters, especially around vaccines. They fear vaccines, they fear us, the polio workers. I explain to them: I’m here for you, for the health and safety of your children. I’m here despite the intense heat and the biting cold. When you refuse to vaccinate, it is the children who will suffer the most. My only motivation is that children and families are spared the suffering of polio,” says Khan.

Manzoor (second right, pictured here with his uncle, brothers and sisters) will make a full recovery from polio paralysis. ©UNICEF/Karimi

By Kate Pond, UNICEF Afghanistan

“Manzoor is our miracle child!” exclaims the young man, face shining. Two-and-a-half-year-old Manzoor is unmoved by his uncle’s excitement; he is busy eyeing the boiled sweet in the outstretched hand of a village elder on the other side of the room. The boy gets up decisively, and trots across the carpet. He grabs the candy in a pudgy hand and gobbles it down with relish.

Just a few months ago, Manzoor could not walk. His left leg was paralyzed by the polio virus.

In a neighbouring district, Saima, fidgets with her hennaed fingers while her father pours tea. Small for her 11 years, Saima still favours her right side, although the paralysis caused by the virus is easing. As her father tells the story of her recent illness, her grandfather puts his arm around the girl’s shoulders, embracing her warmly.

Polio is still endemic in Afghanistan – one of the last two countries in the world. Since the start of 2023, six children have been diagnosed with the disease, all of them in Nangarhar Province, a rural area in the east of the country. Saima and Manzoor are lucky: six months after the onset of symptoms, it looks like they will make a full recovery. Two of the six were not so lucky; one boy remains very weak in the limbs affected, and one girl died.

The national polio vaccination campaign, led by the National Emergency Operations Centre in coordination with UNICEF and WHO, is in full swing. Last year, 9.4 million children were vaccinated under the campaign, and the target for 2023 is 10 million. The monthly campaigns are boosted by educational campaigns for mothers and other caregivers, run by UNICEF and partners.

Saima and Manzoor received vaccine drops in recent campaigns, and their parents were well aware of the signs and symptoms of polio, how it is caught, and the importance of vaccination as the only preventative measure. In fact, the speed at which their parents acted to get tests and treatment for their children are testament to the commitment and hard work of over 30,000 polio social mobilisers and influencers building public trust in the programme, and the deep-seated desire of the Afghan community to eradicate the virus once and for all.

The combination of vaccination campaigns and regular routine vaccination is the gold standard to eradicate polio forever. Nangarhar ranks above the national average for full childhood vaccinations, with 27 per cent of children fully covered, although it is also slightly higher than average for children in the same age bracket to be unvaccinated (Ref: UNICEF MICS 2022-23). In each of the six new polio cases, the children had missed one vital vaccination – usually the intravenous jab given to babies and toddlers – which left a gap in their immunity, and the virus was able to break through.

Nothing happens in a vacuum. For a vaccine to work effectively, the child receiving it needs to be healthy, adequately nourished, and living in a sanitary environment. The polio virus is contracted from water sources that are contaminated by raw sewage infected with the virus. Wild polio is detected in the samples WHO collects in regions across Afghanistan, including in the east.

Less than half the population of Afghanistan has access to basic sanitation, and a third do not have access to clean drinking water. In rural areas, like Saima and Manzoor’s districts, the streams the children play in are often the same streams that household waste and effluent flow into. Nangarhar residents benefit from higher-than-average access to clean drinking water, but sanitation is considerably lower than average, and 20 per cent practice open defecation. In Manzoor’s district, for example, only 30 per cent of the population benefit from a piped water supply. Without the necessary infrastructure in place to provide these services, children will continue to be exposed to the virus in their living environment and run the risk of contracting the disease.

The polio vaccination campaign is striding forward in Afghanistan, and the virus is fighting to survive. But while the water in which children play is contaminated, the risk of them catching the virus hangs heavily over communities. Winning the battle involves recognizing the interconnectedness of health and nutrition, clean water and sanitation, community education and vaccination, and responding with a comprehensive package of services. As Saima’s father put it: “Mashallah my daughter is lucky. She will make a full recovery. But without better sanitation we will continue to live in fear of the virus.”

To celebrate this year’s World Polio Day, supporters from over 30 countries, across every region of the world, joined the Make Polio History campaign to tell global partners, donors, and polio-affected country governments that eradication is possible and urgently needed now. 

The Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) has the knowledge and tools to end polio for good, but we cannot do it alone. Throughout the campaign, polio champions around the world built a long list of some of the greatest wins for humanity—from the creation of the first vaccine to the harnessing of electricity—and shared why polio eradication can and must be added to this list.  

Well-known figures like Bill Nye, Adina Porter, Prue Leith and Itzhak Perlman voiced their support for a healthier future for children everywhere. Health workers in Afghanistan and Cameroon joined in as well, along with Fiocruz President Mario Moreira, Dr. Naveen Thacker of the International Pediatric Association, GPEI Gender Champion Minister Andrew Mitchell, and other doctors and researchers from India, Brazil and the United Kingdom 

We know that eradicating polio is not easy, but making history never is. The polio eradication effort—from global partners to country governments to local frontline health workers—has a long history of innovating and adapting in the face of adversity. 

GPEI partners know this well, from WHO leadership in the Eastern Mediterranean and African Regional Offices to UNICEF teams in Sudan and Ethiopia, who also participated in the campaign. Rotary International has been there since the beginning, as CEO John Hewko was proud to share, and will continue to be until the end. And finally, members of the GPEI’s Polio Oversight Board recognized the global support shown throughout the campaign, and committed their efforts to delivering a polio-free world. 

Today, there are proven strategies and new tools to deliver vaccines in the highest-risk areas for polio, which are also some of the world’s most challenging and hard-to-reach settings. Promising trends in polio-affected countries that have been seen in other places now polio-free suggest that today, the virus is truly on its last leg. With continued attention and support from donors, partners and affected country governments, polio eradication is within reach. 

It will take all of us, but together, we can make history again and end polio for good. 

Visit the Make Polio History website to hear more perspectives from polio champions from around the world, and to lend your voice to the effort.  

Last month, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation partnered with The Moth to host an exceptional storytelling event, Don’t Stop Now: Stories from the Final Push to End Polio. Held in New York City during the UN General Assembly, the event was an inspiring night of powerful personal stories from individuals whose lives have been impacted by polio.

The event was hosted by Dr. Richard Besser, President and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and opening remarks were provided by Chris Elias, President of the Global Development Division at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Storytellers included Safia Ibrahim (Public Engagement Manager at Results Canada and polio survivor), Wasif Mahmood (Head of Communications at UNICEF Pakistan), and Oyewale Tomori (past President of the Nigerian Academy of Science, past Virologist at WHO AFRFO), who all told powerful stories about their lived polio experiences, inspiring the audience to keep up the fight to end this devastating disease. Special guest EXILE TETSUYA (Japanese artist and polio advocate) also provide remarks on his own polio eradication advocacy efforts.


BRUSSELS, 11 October 2023 – Today, the European Commission (EC), the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), along with the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) announced a new financing partnership to advance polio eradication efforts and strengthen healthcare systems. Of the expected €1.1 billion, €500 million in new funding will go to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) – specifically to its implementing partners, WHO and UNICEF – and €500 million to programs that expand innovation and research capacity in low- and middle-income countries. 

This announcement comes at a critical time for global eradication efforts. When the GPEI was established in 1988, wild poliovirus paralyzed an estimated 350,000 children in over 125 countries every year. Today, only two endemic countries remain – Pakistan and Afghanistan – and 80% of variant poliovirus cases are found in only four subnational regions. Promising trends in affected countries, like shrinking genetic diversity of the virus and increasingly geographically confined outbreaks, suggest that in most places the virus is on its last leg.  

Now, new commitments from European leaders puts the program one step closer to seizing the historic opportunity we have to overcome final hurdles and end polio for good. The expected funds will allow polio vaccinations to reach nearly 370 million children annually, with a focus on targeting remaining un- or under-vaccinated children who typically live in some of the world’s hardest-to-reach areas.  

By focusing on such communities, the program is able to deliver broader health benefits to low resource settings, including routine immunizations, counseling on breastfeeding, Vitamin A supplementation and more. This not only fosters healthier communities today, but also strengthens health systems to better prepare for and respond to emerging health threats, as the polio program and workforce has done against COVID-19, Ebola, and other diseases. 

Partners announced the new financing partnership at the “Healthy Hopes: Reasons for optimism in science and global cooperation” event in Brussels. The event featured a keynote speech from Stella Kyriakides, European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, remarks from Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of WHO, and a panel discussion featuring Catherine Russell, Executive Director of UNICEF and European leaders – Koen Doens, Director-General at the EC’s Directorate General for International Partnerships, Werner Hoyer, President of the EIB, and Caroline Gennez, Belgium’s Minister for Development. The event concluded with a fireside chat with Bill Gates, Co-Chair of the BMGF. 

European leaders re-affirmed their commitment to ending polio for good and called on the rest of the world to join them and the GPEI partners in the fight for a polio-free world. They underscored the need for global cooperation in the final stretch to eradicate this devastating disease.   

In his remarks, Dr. Tedros reminded attendees about the incredible progress that has been made toward a polio-free world, the tools and strategies we have at our disposal that will get the job done, and the importance of donors like the EC and EIB in unlocking the GPEI’s ability to utilize them. Catherine Russell reinforced the ever-narrowing window of opportunity we have to end polio for good and affirmed her confidence in the program’s ability to stop all virus transmission in the immediate future while meeting the broader health needs of communities now.  

During the fireside chat, Bill Gates expressed his optimism about what this new investment represents for the future of eradication efforts and global health. By finding innovative ways to partner, European leaders are helping us achieve a world where no child is paralyzed by this preventable disease.  

Increased support from donors, leaders of polio-affected countries and partners is essential to protect the incredible progress made so far, achieve high vaccination coverage and end polio for good. A polio-free world is in sight, but stakeholders at all levels must stay committed to achieving this goal and building strong health systems to protect children today and future generations.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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