- No case of WPV1 was confirmed
- 23.4 million children were vaccinated during sNIDs.
- 1 million children were vaccinated at 121 Permanent Transit Points
The Health Ministers of the G20 countries, meeting in Rome, Italy, on 5-6 September 2021, recommitted to helping secure a lasting polio-free world once and for all. In their official communiqué, the Health Ministers said: “We re-affirm our commitment to eradicate polio… We note the critical role that adaptable surveillance capacity, like that found in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, has in the ability to reach vulnerable communities to prevent and respond to pandemics.”
The importance to eradicate polio, and the GPEI’s unique value in supporting COVID-19 response efforts, had previously been underscored by other global fora, including at the recent WHO Regional Committee for Africa, the G7 Heads of State meeting, the G7 health ministers meeting and the World Health Assembly.
An integral part of the new GPEI Strategy 2022-2026 is to ensure close coordination with broader public health efforts, to not only achieve a lasting world free of all polioviruses, but also one where the polio infrastructure will continue to benefit other public health emergencies long after the disease has been eradicated. Key to success, however, will be the continued support and engagement of the international development community, including by ensuring that previous pledges are fully and rapidly operationalized.
The GPEI also recognizes the critical role of women in the delivery of health services and has committed to ensuring their empowered engagement in polio eradication efforts in order to reach every last child.
25 August 2021 – “Poliovirus circulation does not stop during conflicts, it does not stop during emergencies. If anything, it makes children and families even more vulnerable by adding a layer of risk”, says a Polio Provincial Officer from Balkh province.
Despite risks and challenges due to the recent insecurity, the polio programme is staying and delivering for the children of Afghanistan. Our 315 staff and more than 70,000 polio health workers across the country remain firm in their resolve to eradicate polio. Their work ensures that critical polio activities continue while adapting to the rapidly changing situation and carry on even when hostility levels are high.
In 2021, one wild poliovirus type 1 (WPV1) and 43 circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus type 2 (cVDPV2) cases have been confirmed in Afghanistan. All cases have been reported in areas of the country that have for years been inaccessible for door-to-door vaccination campaigns, which left at least 3 million children repeatedly deprived of polio vaccination. Population displacement brought about by the current situation could further impact the programme’s access to children and increase immunity gaps against polio, triggering a rise in transmission. It is also feared that the mixing and movement of unvaccinated populations due to the upheaval faced by thousands of Afghans may spur polio transmission.
“We are working with all actors, to ensure there are no delays or disruptions to polio vaccination campaigns and overall routine immunization. Gains of the past twenty years cannot be lost. Children need immunization now, they must not bear the brunt of conflict and instability. We are calling for unimpeded access to all children,” says Dr. Dapeng Luo, WHO Representative in Afghanistan.
While the current situation is a challenge, it is by no means the first the polio programme has faced. Using its wealth of knowledge from many years of operating in complex environments, the programme has invested in robust, pre-emptive contingency planning to be able to adapt and continue delivering. Regular monitoring of the security situation has allowed for nimble decision making.
The programme has moved swiftly to ensure safety and security of its staff. Its international staff footprint has been significantly reduced and vulnerable national staff and their dependants have been temporarily relocated to Kabul. Flexible working arrangements and salary advances have been provided to cover urgent needs of staff and polio health workers, who are the backbone of polio operations.
Around eighty percent of polio staff remain at their field locations and working to maintain essential polio services, supported remotely by colleagues who have needed to relocate.
“I am filled with pride for my team and their strong resolve, courage and passion. They are the heroes children of Afghanistan need right now. Thanks to their efforts, Acute Flaccid Paralysis (AFP) and environmental surveillance never stopped. Except for a few locations that experienced temporary disruptions last week, stool sample collection, visits to active health facilities, case investigation, the shipment of samples to Pakistan for laboratory testing, and the collection and transport of sewage samples for polio environmental surveillance remain unaffected. COVID-19 surveillance, which the polio programme has been supporting since last year, has also continued,” says Irfan Elahi Akbar, Polio Team Leader, WHO Afghanistan.
Polio vaccinations are continuing through permanent transit teams in most regions and at cross-border sites, including Friendship Gate (between Afghanistan and Pakistan).
After a brief pause, the National Emergency Operation Center is back up-and-running and undertaking planning needed to implement future campaigns. Discussions are ongoing with local authorities to safeguard the resumption of critical immunization activities across the country. The programme remains optimistic that polio vaccination campaigns planned for later this year can go ahead, however, is maintaining a flexible approach.
“The safety and security of staff and polio health workers is our top priority. Their commitment to ending polio is nothing short of inspirational. I stand ready to support their critical work in any way I can. I say this with absolute conviction: We will achieve a polio-free world,” said Dr. Hamid Jafari, Director of Polio Eradication, WHO Eastern Mediterranean Region.
See link to story on WHO EMRO’s website.
The Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) is closely monitoring developments in Afghanistan. GPEI partners and staff are currently assessing immediate disruptions to polio eradication efforts and the delivery of other essential health services, to ensure continuity of surveillance and immunization activities while prioritizing the safety and security of staff and frontline health workers in the country.
The polio programme in Afghanistan has operated for many years amid insecurity and conflict, and will continue working with all actors, agencies and organizations who enable delivery of immunization as well as deliver humanitarian assistance to populations in need across the country. The GPEI remains steadfastly committed to protecting all children from polio and supporting the provision of other essential immunizations and health services.
We strongly believe that the delivery of health care – including polio vaccination – is essential to prevent diseases and safeguard communities. Together with our partners, the people of Afghanistan, national and provincial authorities, we will do everything in our power to continue this critical work.
The Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) was deeply saddened by the UK parliament’s decision to support significant cuts to international aid, which will continue for at least five years. The cuts include a proposed 95% reduction in the contributions made to the GPEI by the UK for 2021. It is not clear whether this percentage reduction will apply in subsequent years but given the lower overall available funding, the GPEI will have to plan for significant funding cuts in the future.
The UK pledged at the 2019 Reaching the Last Mile Conference in Abu Dhabi to help vaccinate more than 400 million children a year against polio. The GPEI already began incorporating those funds into its plans for global activities, and the process of implementing changes during the 2020-21 financial year will be deeply disruptive to the GPEI’s programmatic planning. The COVID-19 pandemic has left more children vulnerable to vaccine-preventable diseases such as polio and the impact of the cuts – now approved by parliament – will be profound.
The polio programme’s importance to global health security cannot be overstated. During the pandemic, the GPEI’s resources and expertise have been deployed extensively to assist the COVID-19 response. The unique value of the polio infrastructure was recently highlighted during the G7 meeting that took place in the UK when world leaders called for a global pandemic radar built on the existing surveillance networks of the polio and influenza programme.
That we are so close to a polio-free world is thanks in large part to longstanding UK leadership and investment. The GPEI looks forward to working with the UK and its other longstanding partners to protect progress and address the urgent issues that will arise from this shortfall in funding, and ultimately secure a world free of polio.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) on July 24 announced an additional US$9.5 million support to the Pakistan Polio Eradication Initiative (PEI). The funding will be used to vaccinate approximately 16 million children during door-to-door immunization campaigns in 84 highest-risk districts as well as an additional US$376,000 to provide personal protective equipment against COVID-19 for the frontline campaign workers.
The funding, which will be utilized from July to December, brings to more than US$23 million made available by the UAE in 2021. The Emirates, a long-time supporter of Pakistan’s polio programme and its main funder, has provided over US$200 million in financial support since 2014. Pakistan is one of two countries where wild poliovirus remains endemic.
Speaking on behalf of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, Dr Palitha Mahipala, the World Health Organization Representative in Pakistan, thanked the UAE for its generous contribution, noting the UAE’s steadfast commitment not only to protecting children from lifelong paralysis but to the overall goal of polio eradication.
“The UAE has firmly stood by the polio programme with vital yearly contributions and in pleas for extra funding to address unforeseen challenges such as COVID-19,” he said. “This would not be possible without their support.”
Only one case of wild poliovirus has been reported in Pakistan in the first six months of the year, a significant decrease from the 59 cases reported during the same period in 2020. In order to be certified polio-free, Pakistan is required to report zero cases of wild poliovirus over a three-year period. The Government of Pakistan remains fully committed to reaching the goal of zero in the coming months.
Through the Emirates Polio Campaign initiative, the UAE Pakistan Assistance Programme (UAE-PAP) plays an important role in driving eradication efforts at the frontline of Pakistan’s most vulnerable communities. In 2020, as part of the Emirates Polio Campaign, UAE-PAP support ensured close to 16 million children under five years of age received protection through repeated polio campaigns and all frontline workers in 84 districts received personal protective equipment and training to facilitate protection from COVID-19.
“The efforts and sacrifices of the field vaccination teams, who faced difficult field conditions and dangerous challenges, greatly contribute to the success of the campaigns and reducing the spread of poliovirus in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan,” said Mr. Abdullah Alghfeli, Director of the UAE-PAP.
Mr. Abdullah praised the humanitarian approach and the generous support of His Highness Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, adding that His Highness’s humanitarian initiative to eradicate polio is a major factor contributing to the elimination of the disease.
Dr Shahzad Baig, National Coordinator of the National Emergency Operations Centre (NEOC) for polio eradication warmly welcomed the contribution as an important boost in ensuring the programme continued door-to-door polio campaigns, the most effective way of immunizing against the virus, and ending polio in Pakistan.
“We are getting closer to our goal but this is not the time to be complacent,” he warned. “We are re-doubling our efforts to ensure the gains of the past don’t slip away.”
Health interventions and immunization activities are most effective when delivered by women. During each nationwide polio vaccination campaign in Pakistan, women make up around 62 percent of the 280, 000+ frontline workforce vaccinating millions of children across the country.
With each campaign depending on the dedication of staff to reach all children, given their trusted roles and responsibilities in communities, female polio frontline workers are playing a key role in eradicating polio.
Breaking barriers to immunization
After three years as a monitor of campaign activities, Zubaida Bibi has progressed from being a polio team member to a team leader in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in the country’s north, one of the most affected areas in Pakistan.
Breaking the gender-related barriers to immunization, Zubaida travels extensively including hard-to-reach areas. Not even the winter season, when the roads and tracks are covered with snow, deters Zubaida.
“It leaves us with no option but to travel for miles and hours on foot to reach the children,” she says “Despite the challenges, I always try and motivate my teams, telling them that we are on a national mission to save the future of our children,” she says.
“It gives me a feeling of gratitude and satisfaction when the community appreciates our efforts for improving the health of their children,” adds Zubaida.
For nine years, Shumaila Majeed has worked as a community-based health worker in Lahore, with a firm belief in empowering women and supporting their important presence in the polio programme.
Mothers would frequently ask her about the safety of the polio vaccine. “I would always tell them that the polio vaccine is totally safe for their children and build their trust,” says Shumaila.
“It’s very important to have women in every walk of life,” she explains. “Not only because women and grandmothers feel more comfortable when their children are vaccinated but to give more opportunities for woman to grow and excel.”
Through her work Shumaila wants to give young girls a message: stay focused on their goals and leave no stone unturned to make their dreams come true.
In Pakistan, a significant number of parents and caregivers still doubt the effectiveness of vaccines. Karachi has long been a core reservoir for the poliovirus, with continuous and intense circulation.
Shagufta Naz, a community-based health worker in charge of Gulshan town, has been working for 21 years to ensure all children in her area are vaccinated on time. “Initially, parents used to hide their children from us due to their fear,” she explains.
Everyone who works with Shagufta is immediately impressed by her great care, her attention to detail and her meticulous record-keeping which is key to achieving vaccination targets. As a result of Shagufta’s hard work, vaccine refusals have reduced significantly. Her work is now so highly regarded that some parents will only have their children vaccinated by Shagufta, asking for her by name with each polio campaign.
“I got to know the community very well, built their trust,” she explains. “I know every pregnant woman and can tell you when she is due. Now, mothers regularly ask me about the next vaccination campaign.”
Going against all odds
Gul Parana, a Tehsil Communication Officer for the polio eradication programme in Balochistan province in the country’s southwest, recently graduated with a master’s degree.
Assigned to raise awareness about the benefits of vaccination in Chaman District, one of the most challenging areas for the polio programme, she is proud of her work despite many challenges.
“Since Chaman is a very remote and conservative area, it’s not easy for a young girl like me to go out of the house. Most of my friends are not allowed to work. But I have a mission to save our children and give them a healthy future,” she says.
With support of her family, Gul Parana has become a symbol of strength for the girls of her locality. “I want to inspire other girls so they can also get an education and work. We need to have equal opportunities for every girl in Balochistan,” she adds.
The health ministers of the G7 countries reaffirmed their commitment to polio eradication, at their annual meeting held in Oxford, UK and virtually, on 3-4 June 2021. As part of their official communique, the health ministers affirmed: “We need to continue supporting the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, whose surveillance capacity and ability to reach vulnerable communities are critical in many countries to prevent and respond to pandemics.”
The statement was welcomed by the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) core partners, which comes ahead of the launch of the new GPEI Strategy 2022-2026, developed in close collaboration with partners, countries and donors, and which lays out the roadmap to achieving and sustaining a world free of all polioviruses. At the same time, the new plan will ensure that the benefits of the polio eradication infrastructure will be able to continue to benefit broader public health efforts long after the disease is gone. In 2020 and 2021, for example, the GPEI infrastructure continues to provide crucial support to the COVID-19 pandemic response, and will continue to do so, as global response continues to accelerate vaccine roll-out efforts. The G7 has recognized that the GPEI has one of the most effective disease surveillance and response networks in the world at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic continues its devastation. It has the ability to respond to not only polio but also other disease outbreaks, contributing to larger global health systems and security.
Key to success, however, will be the continued support and engagement of the international development community, including by ensuring that previous pledges are fully and rapidly operationalized.
GENEVA, 10 June 2021 – Today, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) will launch the Polio Eradication Strategy 2022-2026: Delivering on a Promise at a virtual event, to overcome the remaining challenges to ending polio, including setbacks caused by COVID-19. While polio cases have fallen 99.9% since 1988, polio remains a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) and persistent barriers to reaching every child with polio vaccines and the pandemic have contributed to an increase in polio cases. Last year, 1226 cases of all forms of polio were recorded compared to 138 in 2018.
In 2020, the GPEI paused polio door-to-door campaigns for four months to protect communities from the spread of COVID-19 and contributed up to 30,000 programme staff and over $100 million in polio resources to support pandemic response in almost 50 countries.
Leaders from the two countries yet to interrupt wild polio transmission—Pakistan and Afghanistan—called for renewed global solidarity and the continued resources necessary to eradicate this vaccine-preventable disease. They committed to strengthening their partnership with GPEI to improve vaccination campaigns and engagement with communities at high risk of polio.
Dr Faisal Sultan, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister of Pakistan on Health, said, “We are already hard at work with our GPEI partners to address the final barriers to ending polio in Pakistan, particularly through strengthening vaccination campaigns and our engagement with high-risk communities. Eradication remains a top health priority and Pakistan is committed to fully implementing the new GPEI strategy. We look forward to working with international partners to achieve a polio-free world.”
The 2022-2026 Strategy underscores the urgency of getting eradication efforts back on track and offers a comprehensive set of actions that will position the GPEI to achieve a polio-free world. These actions, many of which are underway in 2021, include:
“With this new Strategy, the GPEI has clearly outlined how to overcome the final barriers to securing a polio-free world and improve the health and wellbeing of communities for generations to come,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization and member of the Polio Oversight Board. “But to succeed, we urgently need renewed political and financial commitments from governments and donors. Polio eradication is at a pivotal moment. It is important we capitalise on the momentum of the new Strategy and make history together by ending this disease.”
Dr Wahid Majrooh, Acting Minister of Public Health for Afghanistan, said, “Afghanistan is fully committed to implementing the new GPEI strategic plan and eradicating polio from its borders. Together we have come so far. Let us take this final step together and make the dream of a polio-free world a reality.”
In addition to eradicating wild polio, GPEI will strengthen efforts to stop outbreaks of circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus (cVDPV) that continue to spread in under-immunized communities across Africa and Asia. This includes deploying proven tactics used against wild polio, improving outbreak response and streamlining management through the launch of new global and regional rapid response teams and broadening the use of a promising new tool – novel oral polio vaccine type 2 (nOPV2) – to combat type 2 cVDPVs, the most prominent variant.
H.E. Félix Tshisekedi, President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, said “As Chair of the African Union, I call on every government to increase their commitment to protecting the gains of our monumental efforts and finishing the job against polio in Africa. Only then, we will be able to say we delivered on our promise of a safer, healthier future for all our children.”
Select countries began using nOPV2 in March of this year after WHO issued an Emergency Use Listing recommendation for the vaccine last November. Clinical trials have shown that nOPV2 is safe and effective against type 2 polio, while having the potential to stop cVDPV2 outbreaks in a more sustainable way compared to the existing type 2 oral polio vaccine.
In addition to supporting the COVID-19 response, polio assets and infrastructure have historically helped tackle the emergence of health crises in several countries around the world, including the Ebola outbreak in Nigeria in 2014. Without the support needed for the new GPEI Strategy, there is a risk not only that polio could resurge, but also that countries will be more vulnerable to future health threats.
Henrietta Fore, Executive Director, UNICEF: “We will not allow the fight against one deadly disease to cause us to lose ground in the fight against polio and other childhood diseases. Renewed government and donor support will enable us to reach and immunize over 400 million children against polio every year and ensure that no family has to live with the fear of their child being paralyzed by this deadly disease ever again.”
Rochelle P. Walensky, MD, MPH, Director, CDC: “As the GPEI’s support for the COVID-19 response shows, polio infrastructure is vital to helping countries tackle emerging health threats. The U.S. CDC is committed to achieving polio eradication and delivering, through the GPEI’s new strategy, on the promise we made to protect the world’s children. To improve health equity, we must ensure that polio assets are secured and that countries are increasing their immunization coverage through integrated service delivery and demand for vaccines.”
Seth Berkley, CEO, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance: “Polio eradication is possible and essential. Through the increased integration of polio activities with essential immunization and health services, including our joint work to extend the health system to reach “zero-dose” children and missed communities with all routine vaccines, we believe that we can better meet the needs of high-risk communities and secure a polio-free world together.”
Mike McGovern, Chair, Rotary’s International PolioPlus Committee: “More than 19 million people are walking today who would have otherwise been paralysed by polio, thanks to the incredible progress we’ve made in protecting children with polio vaccines since 1988. When Rotary helped found the GPEI, we made a commitment to ensure that no child or family should live in fear of polio ever again. We are committed to delivering on this promise and urge governments and donors to help us achieve a polio-free world.”
Chris Elias, President, Global Development, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation: “After setbacks in recent years, and indications that some donors may reduce funding to the GPEI, there has never been a more important moment than right now in the history of polio eradication. With adequate support for the new strategy, we can secure a world where no child will be paralyzed by polio ever again and we urge all donors to stay committed and consign this disease to history.”
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Note for editors:
The Global Polio Eradication Initiative is a public-private partnership led by national governments with six core partners – the World Health Organization (WHO), Rotary International, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), UNICEF, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.
In 1996, wild poliovirus was paralysing more than 75 000 children in the African Region every year, and Nelson Mandela and Rotary International issued a call to “Kick Polio Out of Africa!” The task was daunting. Polio staff had to deal with highly mobile populations, restricted access to children because of conflict and insecurity, fragile health systems and a fast-moving virus. Nigeria, as recently as 2012, accounted for more than half of all wild polio cases worldwide.
Ridding Africa of the wild poliovirus in the face of such daunting obstacles was, in the words of WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, “one of the greatest public health achievements of our time”. It is an achievement built on the dedication of health workers – mainly women – who traveled by every available means – foot, car, boat, bike and more – to reach children with the polio vaccine.
One of those workers, Lami Isah Kyadawa, supported polio “immunization plus days” for almost 12 years before joining the network of volunteer community mobilizers in Sokoto State, Nigeria, in 2015. In her time fighting polio, she has overcome vaccine hesitancy, countered misinformation and even lost the sight in one eye in an accident returning from a polio mobilization campaign. But, for Lami, the sacrifices have all been worth it:
“It makes me proud to know that I was part of those that ensured the eradication of polio came to pass in Nigeria and now we can focus on improving routine immunization and other diseases.”
Eradicating wild polio in the African Region is a monumental feat, not just because of the scale of the task but because of the coordination and leadership required at all levels of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) to get the job done. It involved strategists with imagination, who found solutions to reaching children in regions rife with conflict and insecurity. It required constant surveillance to test cases of paralysis and check sewage for the virus, and it relied upon the commitment of all 47 countries in the African Region.
Since 1996, nine billion doses of oral polio vaccine have been provided, averting an estimated 1.8 million cases of wild poliovirus on the continent. Building on this success, countries in the African Region are now using the polio eradication infrastructure’s robust immunization and surveillance capacities to strengthen their health systems. The infrastructure, with thousands of health workers and volunteers, community and religious leaders, parents and families mobilized to “Kick Polio Out of Africa”, provides a strong foundation for countering other public health threats.
Long before the coronavirus pandemic, stopping wild polio brought far-reaching benefits beyond saving children from paralysis, including protecting them from other vaccine-preventable diseases and detecting and responding to outbreaks.
Thus, when COVID-19 struck, the GPEI’s staff and infrastructure were in place and equipped to be the first to respond. Thousands of polio workers in the WHO’s African, Eastern Mediterranean and South-East Asian Regions shifted their focus to COVID-19. Polio emergency operation centres quickly adapted to respond to the pandemic through surveillance, contact tracing and specimen transport, provision of soap and hand sanitizer, distribution of training materials for medical personnel and front-line workers and coordinated engagement with community and religious leaders and media on mitigation measures.
Polio staff have long been the eyes and ears of national health systems. In one example, polio laboratories in Pakistan provided COVID-19 testing and sequencing, while the polio eradication call centre became (and remains) the national COVID-19 hotline, dealing with up to 70 000 calls a day
Polio staff trained more than 18 600 health professionals, and polio community mobilizers engaged 7000 religious leaders and 26 000 influencers to provide information on COVID-19 to their communities. Through messaging applications, mosque announcements and public address systems on motorbikes and rickshaws, polio community outreach networks have reached millions of households.
The pandemic has shown that the polio network can continue to serve other public health programmes, especially in health emergencies. For instance, in Pakistan, active polio surveillance at high-priority sites helped to confirm more than 1000 COVID-19 cases, more than 4400 suspected cases and nearly 500 probable cases. Staff have also used their expertise in data management to improve the quality and timeliness of data during the pandemic. This adaptable skill set makes polio personnel invaluable to health systems and communities.
Looking ahead, transition of polio personnel and infrastructure into public health systems is being planned in countries with large polio eradication programmes, led by national authorities. In places where there is insufficient national capacity, critical immunization, disease detection, emergency preparedness and response capacities will be supported by WHO’s immunization and emergencies programmes until national authorities can fully take over. Sustaining these capacities will require sustainable funding, but, as Africa’s remarkable achievement confirms, the wisdom of investing in polio eradication and sustaining its legacy is clear, as the networks set up for polio eradication will prove vital to advancing global public health security and achieving healthier populations.
Reposted from who.int.
The Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) is greatly concerned by the United Kingdom’s proposed cuts to contributions toward polio eradication in 2021. The proposed 95% reduction will result in an enormous setback to the eradication effort at a critical moment.
The UK has a long legacy as a leader in global health and its leadership in polio eradication, including financial contributions to the GPEI, have driven wild poliovirus out of all but two countries in the world. The GPEI values the UK government’s steadfast partnership and shared commitment to eradicating polio, and UK citizens have generously championed the drive to end polio. This has helped bring the world to the cusp of being polio-free, whilst providing an investment in broader public health capacity.
In 2019, the UK government pledged to help vaccinate more than 400 million children a year against polio and to support 20 million health workers and volunteers in this vital work. In addition to their life-saving work to end polio, these health workers have been in the frontline of the fight against COVID-19 and have helped some of the world’s most vulnerable countries protect their citizens. The UK’s ongoing support is needed to ensure that the polio infrastructure can continue supporting COVID-19 response efforts, while also resuming lifesaving immunization services against other deadly childhood diseases. In 2020, the UK government’s contributions ensured that the GPEI could continue to support outbreak response in 25 countries and conduct surveillance in nearly 50, all whilst strengthening health systems. The continuation of such support will not be possible unless replacement funds are identified, and as such, this funding cut will have a potentially devastating impact on the polio eradication program.
The GPEI recognises the challenging economic circumstances faced by the UK government and a host of other countries. Governments worldwide are making critical investments in the health of their citizens, as well as evaluating global commitments. Cutting the UK government’s contributions by 95% will, however, put millions of children at increased risk of diseases such as polio and will weaken the ability of countries to detect and respond to outbreaks of polio and other infectious diseases, including COVID-19. Furthermore, it risks delaying polio eradication and the dismantling of one of the most effective disease surveillance and response networks at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic continues its devastation.
GPEI looks forward to working with the UK and the broader global community to address these urgent issues, which jeopardize the collective investment and progress toward a polio free world. Together we can end polio forever and ensure that polio infrastructure and its assets continue to strengthen preparedness and response and save lives.
In his English writing class, Mujahid Miran was asked to write an essay titled the “Aim of life”. This was a space for the students to imagine who they could be and what they saw themselves as when they grew up.
Miran wanted to be a captain in the army and he eagerly shared this ‘aim of life’ in his essay. After his hopes made it to the page, his teacher immediately shot it down: There was no way he would make it, she told him, because he had polio.
Born in 1985, Miran grew up in Kohat and contracted polio when he was two. This was a year before the Global Polio Eradication Initiative was founded in 1988, leading to a worldwide vaccination campaign to fight the spread of the disease. In the decade of the ’80s, the estimated number of cases was over 350 000 per year, while the disease was still prevalent in 125 countries. With focused efforts around the world to eradicate the poliovirus, the number of paralytic cases was reduced by 99.99% with 42 cases in 2016.
For Miran, school was among the most challenging periods of his life. “School life was generally very hard. It must be easier for polio survivors to study in special schools, but in a usual school, I was always referred to as langra, mazoor (derogatory words in Urdu for people with disabilities). I was always made to feel different.”
The challenges were frequent, never letting him forget that he couldn’t walk from one leg. “Among the things that would hurt a lot was sports class or recess. “Every time kids would be chosen for a sports activity, I was completely sidelined – as if I wasn’t even there.” he says.
Academically, Miran always performed well in class and would usually be among the top three students. I always had among the best grades, but I would never be nominated to be the class monitor or get a position as part of the student council, he says. “Every week I’d go to my teacher and ask her why I was never nominated because other students who would be poorer than me academically would be chosen instead. A part of me knew even back then that it was my disability, but now looking back, I know it was exactly that.”
After having lived with polio for 33 years now, Miran is now based in Karachi and is part of a small seafood export business. He buys seafood from factories in Pakistan to sell in southeast Asia and makes an income for the commission he makes per sale.
Miran is able to independently support his family of his wife and two children, aged six and two, but the everyday realities of living with polio make the smallest of tasks harder.
“There is such little awareness in Pakistan, and it’s even within government institutions. I had to get my special driver’s license and when I went to get it made, the officer on duty asked me to raise my shalwar in front of a group of people and stand on one foot to prove I had a disability, he adds. “The humiliation is too much.”
This virus has also been an obstacle in maintaining friendships, as most places for leisure in Pakistan have no access for people with disabilities. “Plus, there is also so much shame in it. I was in Dubai once and I was walking with a friend who turned around to me and said that the way I was walking was embarrassing for him. This virus impacts your life in every way.”
Last year, Africa was declared wild polio-free after Nigeria, the last remaining country in the region that had polio and accounted for more than half of all global cases less than a decade ago, had no cases of wild poliovirus for the fourth year running.
Today, Pakistan and Afghanistan are the only two endemic countries in the world and global efforts continue to vaccine children in this epidemiological block, and finally make the dream of a polio-free world possible.
Miran says this interview is his personal effort to spread awareness on polio. “I talk to everyone in my friends and family circle who have young children. I give them my example and tell them they can’t afford to miss out on vaccination. I am very regular with my children’s vaccination too. Whenever polio teams come to our house, I make sure the children take polio drops.”
At many times in the interview, Miran mentions how the physical pain caused by the disease is often unbearable. “I almost never express how much pain I feel because people will think I’m asking them for financial help or wanting their sympathy. But I just want everyone to know that living with polio is hard. Very, very hard.”
The new Regional Subcommittee brings together ministers of health from Member States across the Eastern Mediterranean Region to tackle some of the persistent high-level challenges to polio eradication. Those include raising the visibility of polio eradication as a regional public health emergency and priority and mustering the political support and domestic financial support needed to finish the job.
During the inaugural meeting convened by the Regional Director, Dr Ahmed Al-Mandhari, two co-chairs were elected to drive the regional push: Egypt’s Minister of Health and Population, H.E Dr Hala Zayed, and the Minister of Health and Prevention of the United Arab Emirates, H.E. Abdul Rahman Mohammed Al Oweis.
H.E. Abdul Rahman Mohammed Al Oweis was represented at the meeting by Dr Hussain Al Rand, the Assistant Undersecretary for Health Centres and Clinics and Public Health, United Arab Emirates. Both Member States flagged the urgency of the state of polio transmission in the last polio-endemic region at present, but also the opportunity to leverage greater regional coordination to achieve eradication.
Polio eradicators around the world know that ours is, in many ways, a grassroots programme: we use microplans to work through neighbourhoods door to door, household to household. But big-picture solidarity is needed to maximize the success of our ground-level efforts.
Wild poliovirus transmission has spread beyond core reservoirs of polio endemic Afghanistan and Pakistan, infecting 140 children in 2020. Outbreaks of circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus type 1 (cVDPV1) paralysed 29 children in Yemen. Type 2 outbreaks spread across the Region in 2020, paralysing 308 children in Afghanistan, 135 in Pakistan, 58 in Sudan and 14 in Somalia. At a time like this, moving forward as a region and as blocs, rather than on a country-by-country basis, is critical.
One of the issues identified by Member States as critical to stopping transmission is the movement of people across borders, and ensuring that surveillance and vaccination efforts target the increasing number of people who regularly cross borders across the region – whether they are moving as a consequence of conflict, environmental crises or economic necessity.
Interventions were made by Afghanistan, Egypt, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Iraq, Oman, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. All statements reaffirmed strong support for the establishment of the subcommittee under the Regional Committee Resolution on polio eradication adopted in 2020.
Members of the subcommittee were unanimous in their commitment to engage in coordinated action and support of regional polio eradication efforts in four strategic areas. These include raising the visibility of the polio emergency in the Region, pushing for collective public health action, strengthening efforts to transition polio assets and infrastructure and advocating for the mobilization of national and international funding to achieve and sustain polio eradication.
A theme that ran through all Member States’ interventions was the idea of maximizing the resources already in place – including the workers, the polio and EPI infrastructure a across the region, and the array of community leadership groups with which the polio programme has worked in past.
“Last year or the year before the year before there was a meeting in Muscat with religious leaders from different countries, and I think we need to capitalize on their support. We need to give them ownership,” said Dr Ahmed Al Saidi, Minister of Health, Oman.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had an outsized impact on polio programmes across the region. The four-month pause in vaccination, from March-July 2020, gave the virus a window to spread almost unchecked. While we are immensely proud to have shouldered much of the COVID response burden, with GPEI infrastructure still supporting that response, this has come at a cost: nearly 80 million vaccination opportunities were lost.
“But we are moving forward, making up lost ground and, through this new Regional Subcommittee, leveraging the credibility that the polio programme has built through its pivot to COVID-19 and back again to polio,” said Dr Hamid Jafari, Director of the regional polio programme and co-facilitator of the Regional Subcommittee.
That credibility is now the polio’s most valuable asset: the proof that polio programmes are not just a means to battle polio, but sophisticated, fast-moving public health assets skilled in pandemic response.
The subcommittee will report its progress to WHO’s governing bodies meetings, including the World Health Assembly and the Regional Committee for the Eastern Mediterranean.
The Secretariat, which is made up of the office of the Regional Director and members of the regional polio eradication programme from WHO’s Eastern Mediterranean Region, will support the subcommittee to develop a programme of work based on the key outputs of the group.
With masks on their faces and sanitizers in their pockets, an immunization team makes their way through the narrow lanes of Lahore’s historic old city.
“Our children are like flowers and these anti-polio drives help them grow up healthy and strong,” says Zubair, who along with his colleague Afzal is part of Pakistan’s 260,000-strong frontline vaccinator workforce.
It is the second day of the National Immunization Days (NID) campaign, which launched on 21 September, and the third immunization drive after a four-month suspension of door-to door campaigns due to the risks associated with COVID-19.
After polio campaigns were stopped in March 2020, the number of polio cases in Pakistan continued to increase. An initial small-scale round of vaccinations resumed in July, when over 700,000 children were reached. A second round went ahead in August, where 32 million children were vaccinated across the country. In both campaigns, vaccinators took precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including wearing masks and regularly washing hands.
Making their way from the crowded streets of Taxila Gate, the polio team reaches a historic cultural hub of Lahore city called Heera Mandi.
In this neighbourhood, the team knocks on one door after another. “Sister, do you have children under five at home?”, they say.
When the answer is yes, one of the vaccinators stands to the side while Zubair hands them a hand sanitizer. They all stand at a safe distance from each other, to remain compliant with COVID-19 safety measures, and to make sure the dual message of the necessary fight against both polio and COVID-19 reaches home.
Zubair says that since the resumption of immunization campaigns in Pakistan, parents have been more enthusiastic to ensure their children are vaccinated.
Next door, a Maulana (a religious cleric) answers. When he sees the polio team, he immediately goes back inside. Team members worry that he may reject the vaccine, but soon enough, he returns with his two children.
“Did you ever believe that the polio vaccination was a conspiracy?,” the Maulana is asked. In some parts of Pakistan, false rumours about the vaccine have damaged confidence in immunization, with sometimes devastating results for children subsequently infected with polio.
“No Sir, only a fool can think like that,” he replies.
Afzal, another member of the immunization team, says that he finds his work fulfilling because it allows him to directly speak to parents about polio and explain that they can give their children a healthy future by vaccinating them.
With a physical disability, Afzal often faces discrimination based on his health condition. He explains that this hasn’t prevent him from pursuing his ambitions.
“I never allowed my disability to become an obstacle. I completed my master’s degree while attending regular classes at college, and now I have been working with the polio programme for nine years.”
“If a family is hesitant during a polio campaign, I approach the parents,” he says. “I show the parents my polio-affected leg and ask them if they really want their child to have one too. This changes hesitation to acceptance.”
Health workers like Zubair and Azfal are working every day to achieve the dream of ending polio in Pakistan. With their effort and the efforts of thousands like them, the September campaign successfully reached over 39 million children across the country. These promising results, achieved during a pandemic, are a testament to an ongoing commitment to overcome challenges and move Pakistan closer to a polio-free future.
O’Leary took over as Director for Polio Eradication at WHO on 1 January 2021, from Michel Zaffran, who will enter a well-deserved retirement end-February. O’Leary brings with him a vast array of experience in both polio eradication and emergencies, including through the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
PN: Aidan, Michel, thank you both for taking the time to speak with us today. Aidan – you are taking over from Michel as Director for Polio Eradication at WHO. Polio is 99% eradicated globally, but it has been at 99% for many years. Ultimately, your job will be to achieve that elusive 100%. Do you find the task ahead daunting?
A-O’L: I’m not sure ‘daunting’ is the adjective I would use. But ‘challenging’ for sure. As you say, we have been at 99% for many years now. We have reduced the incidence of polio from 350,000 children paralysed every year in 1988, to less than 1,000 in 2020. But that is not enough, not if we are trying to eradicate a disease. Polio is a highly-infectious disease, and if we did not know it before COVID-19, we certainly know now how quickly infectious diseases can spread globally. If we do not eradicate polio, this virus will resurge globally.
PN: As new Director, what will be your priorities?
A-O’L: My priority, and all of our priorities, must be simply this: find and vaccinate every last child. If we do that, poliovirus will have nowhere to hide. That means in the first instance finding out where those last remaining unreached children are, and what obstacles stand in the way to vaccinating them. Is it because of lack of infrastructure? Insecurity or inaccessibility? Lack of proper operational planning? Population movements? Resistance? Gender-related barriers? If we can identify the underlying reasons, we can adapt our operations and really zero in on those last remaining virus strains.
PN: Michel, you have led this effort for the past five years, and during that time have guided the effort to restrict wild poliovirus transmission to just Pakistan and Afghanistan. You have overseen the achievement of a wild polio-free Africa, an incredible achievement. However, this time has also seen an increase in emergence of circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus, or cVDPV, outbreaks. How do you see the priorities going forward?
MZ: The goal of this effort is of course to ensure that no child will ever again be paralysed by any poliovirus, be it wild or vaccine-derived. This we have to achieve in phases. First, we have to interrupt all remaining wild poliovirus strains, before we can then ultimately stop use of oral polio vaccine, or OPV for short, in order to eliminate the long-term risks of cVDPVs. Aidan has tremendous experience, in both remaining wild poliovirus endemic countries, having led the OCHA office in Afghanistan and having been Chief of Polio Eradication in Pakistan for UNICEF. So he knows the challenges and realities involved. Eradicating the last remaining strains of wild poliovirus must be the overriding priority – success ultimately hinges on that.
At the same time, we have new strategies, tools and approaches to address the increasing cVDPV emergency, notably the novel OPV type 2, or nOPV2 for short, to more effectively and sustainably stop such strains. Ultimately, though, we need to reach children. Only vaccinations save lives, not vaccines.
A-O’L: Michel just mentioned an important word: emergency. And that is precisely what we are facing with polio, whether it’s wild or vaccine-derived. I believe my experience working in emergency settings can help us achieve our goal, including by linking polio operations more closely to other emergency efforts. That is also one of the reasons why WHO and UNICEF recently jointly issued an emergency call for action on polio and measles, and we hope all stakeholders will respond accordingly.
MZ: I would echo that. Particularly in a post-COVID world, the programme must also continue to adapt its approaches and operations, and no longer work so much in isolation. We have to integrate with other efforts including emergency response and broader routine immunization efforts.
A-O’L: I would just add that Michel is really leaving me with a solid base to operate from. He and his teams across the GPEI partnership have built up such a strong infrastructure. I’m thinking here for example of the gender equality work of the programme – it has really been trail-blazing and I know other health and development efforts are looking to our experience on this. It’s a great opportunity to further leverage and expand collaboration with others. So we’ve really become a global leader in many new ways of working, and ultimately, that can only mean more support for this effort.
PN: Thank you so much for speaking with us today. Could we ask for final thoughts from both of you?
A-O’L: We have many challenges, but if any network can achieve success, it is the GPEI network. Our greatest strength that we have is partnerships. Starting with Rotary International and Rotarians worldwide who are tirelessly working towards success, to our other partners including at my old organization UNICEF and our newest partner Gavi who is helping to integrate the programme, and of course ultimately to donor and country governments and communities: this is where our strength and power lies. If we harness this partnership effectively, if we all work together, then we will reach that last remaining child, and we will ensure that this disease is eradicated once and for all.
MZ: For me it has been an absolute honour and privilege to lead this effort for the past years, and I leave with a sense of real optimism. I believe Aidan is the right person for this job right now. In November, at the World Health Assembly, we saw tremendous support for polio eradication from Member States. We have new tools, such as nOPV2, and tremendous new commitments. We are working on a new strategy, to lead us to success. But ultimately, all comes down now to implementation. 2020, the COVID year, taught us many lessons. Many of the questions that are still being asked about COVID – how does it transmit, where is it primarily circulating, what are the best tools and strategies to stop it – have been answered for polio. We know what the virus is doing, how it is behaving, and who it is affecting. Most importantly, we know what we have to do to stop it, and we have all the tools to stop it. But what 2020 also taught us is that this cannot last forever. We never know when a next COVID emergency comes along, which will disrupt everything. In polio eradication, we are being given another chance in 2021, after a bruising 2020. We have to capitalize on it. We have to focus everything on implementation. If we do that, success will follow.