As south-east Africa continues to intensify efforts to stop a wild poliovirus type 1 (WPV1) outbreak detected in Malawi in February, the Africa Regional Certification Commission for Polio Eradication (ARCC) – the independent regional advisory body guiding Africa’s eradication effort – called for urgent action to stop all forms of poliovirus affecting the continent, be it wild or variant.

Reviewing the regional epidemiology at its bi-annual meeting on 6 June, the ARCC commended the governments’ commitments in Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia, in launching a series of emergency outbreak response campaigns, in response to the detected WPV1 in February.  With two campaigns already implemented, further activities planned later in the summer will also feature Zimbabwe participating in the subregional outbreak response effort.  The campaigns are supported by partners of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), notably WHO, UNICEF, BMGF, US CDC, GAVI, and local Rotarians, and by the Africa Rapid Response team.

The ARCC put forward four key recommendations to help ensure the outbreak can be rapidly stopped, namely:

  • implementing plans to improve campaign quality, based on lessons learned and quality-response assessments from the initial two rounds;
  • assessing WPV1 risks for older age groups and, as appropriate, expand target age groups of further outbreak response;
  • further expanding and strengthening subnational surveillance sensitivity to more clearly assess potential spread of this outbreak and eventually verify that the outbreak has been successfully stopped; and,
  • implementing surveillance-focused assessments in all five participating countries.

Commenting on the outbreak response and the group’s deliberations, ARCC chair, Professor Rose Leke said: “Countries must be reminded that wild poliovirus is endemic in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and south-east Africa is now infected.  The risk of poliovirus being re-introduced or re-emerging is high, and the best thing countries can do to minimize the risk and consequences of polio is to strengthen immunity levels and subnational surveillance sensitivity.”

Countries, supported by GPEI partners, are also intensifying efforts to stop a number of variant poliovirus outbreaks in the Region, notably in Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo) and other areas.  To combat this development, the ARCC encouraged partners and countries to prioritize the new novel oral polio vaccine type 2 (nOPV2) supply to highest-risk areas.

“Novel OPV type 2 is an important new tool,” continued Professor Leke.  “But at the same time, it must reach the children it is intended to reach.  Variant polioviruses paralyze children and affect their families and communities in the same way that wild polioviruses do, and hence must be responded to with the same level of urgency and political commitment and oversight.”

Professor Leke and the ARCC members underscored the importance of building up routine immunization capabilities and surveillance sensitivity, both of which are critical in combatting a wide range of infectious diseases, including COVID-19 on the continent.  According to Professor Leke: “The decline of routine immunization in the Region is of particular concern and puts the most vulnerable children at an increased risk to diseases such as polio.”  An immunization and surveillance gap formed in many African countries due to the Covid-19 pandemic, as health workers were limited in routine activities by social distancing restrictions.  While national surveillance activities have been renewed, persistent gaps remain at subnational levels.  The various outbreaks across Africa in 2022 demonstrate that surveillance and routine immunization activities must be improved.

In its concluding remarks, the ARCC noted with appreciation critical milestones achieved, including the recent successful closure of 32 outbreaks from ten countries, at the end of Q1 2022, clearly demonstrating that outbreak response strategies work when fully implemented and resourced.  “We have the opportunity of reaching zero polio cases,” concluded Professor Leke, “but only if we reach the remaining zero-dose children.  Let us all focus our efforts on that, and if that happens, success will follow.”

World Cup winners, Olympic champions and celebrities aren’t the first people who come to mind when thinking of those involved in the effort to end polio. But on 12 June, they’ll unite for the world’s biggest celebrity football match and raise support toward ensuring no child is paralysed by this disease again.

Usain Bolt, Damian Lewis, Carli Lloyd and Andriy Shevchenko are among those who will play in Soccer Aid for UNICEF this year, as an England XI take on the Soccer Aid World XI in London. Through public donations, they’ll be raising funds to help UNICEF provide vaccines, fight malnutrition, and provide safe spaces to protect children in times of crisis.

For polio specifically, these funds will help support the incredible work of polio workers like the brave women in Nigeria who are the backbone of eradication efforts. This volunteer community mobilizer network of 20,000 people is crucial to reaching every child with polio vaccines, and was a key reason behind Nigeria’s success in stamping out wild polio and contributing to the African region being certified free of the virus.

This year is a critical moment in the fight to achieve a polio-free world. Thanks to the 2022-2026 GPEI Strategy and low rates of wild polio transmission globally—the virus is endemic in just two countries—we have an historic opportunity to end this disease.

But achieving that goal needs a team effort to overcome the final challenges, such as reaching children in insecure areas and vaccine hesitancy. As we’ve seen recently with two wild polio cases in southeast Africa imported from Pakistan where it is endemic, while polio persists anywhere in the world no child is safe.

The polio program is co-hosting its pledging moment for the 2022-2026 Strategy with Germany this October at the World Health Summit, where it will be vital for donors and governments to commit the $4.8 billion necessary to fully fund the programme and finish the job.

You can play your part in the eradication effort, too, by heading to the Soccer Aid page to find out how you can ensure children receive the polio vaccine and are protected from lifelong polio paralysis.

Opening of the 75th World Health Assembly – 22 May 2022. © WHO

May 2022, Geneva, Switzerland – Global public health leaders convening last week at the World Health Assembly called for urgent action to end polio once and for all before a unique window of opportunity closes for good.

Recent efforts have had a clear impact on the global epidemiology of poliovirus, with endemic wild poliovirus transmission at extremely low levels, with just Pakistan and Afghanistan remaining endemic, and efforts to curb circulating vaccine-derived polioviruses (cVDPVs) showing fruit. Steps have been taken towards securing the legacy of polio eradication systems and know-how, under the Strategic Action Plan for Polio Transition. But delegates cautioned that this ‘window of opportunity’ will not remain open indefinitely, as experts pointed to recent concerning developments such as new wild poliovirus cases confirmed in Pakistan (the first cases reported in 15 months), wild poliovirus detected in south-east Africa (the first on the African continent since 2016), and polio re-emergence in Ukraine and Israel.

“Worrying developments in recent months highlight how fragile this progress is,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, addressing the Assembly.  “These developments are tragic for the children affected and their families.  But the reality is that in the final stages of an eradication effort, this is expected.  This year, we have the real opportunity to halt wild poliovirus transmission.  At the same time, we must respond faster and better to cVDPV outbreaks, to interrupt all transmission by end-2023.”

Success, however, depends on reaching remaining children who have not been immunized – the ‘zero-dose’ children at the heart of the Immunization Agenda 2030 (IA2030).

Such a need was identified at this month’s G7 joint Development and Health Ministers meeting in Berlin, Germany, where discussions focused on “supporting vaccine equity and pandemic preparedness in developing countries”. The meeting cautioned against letting global crises interfere with other development and public health priorities and urged continued support for existing efforts, including global polio eradication.  Polio eradication is a clear and concrete example of the value of working in close integration with other public health and development efforts. Polio staff continue to contribute to the COVID-19 pandemic response and immunization recovery efforts, together with supporting the introduction and roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines.

Ministers and high-level delegations from 20 countries of regions affected by both WPV1 and cVDPV met with senior GPEI leaders for focused discussions on concrete ways to close the final chains of virus transmission. The meetings were chaired by Polio Oversight Board chair Dr Chris Elias from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and respective WHO AFRO and EMRO Regional Directors, Dr Matshidiso Rebecca Moeti and Dr Ahmed Al-Mandhari.  Key priorities were the importance of reaching zero-dose children, the challenges of complex emergencies and weak health systems, as well as the importance of inter-country coordination and collaboration.

Underscoring the urgency in giving the world one less infectious disease to worry about once and for all, WHO Director-General Dr Tedros issued a clear challenge to the Assembly:  “For countries affected by polio, it is imperative that you reach every last child, and that you respond to vaccine-derived strains with the same urgency as you would to a wild strain.   For countries that are now polio-free, it is crucial to accelerate  efforts to use your polio assets and infrastructure to build stronger, more resilient health systems.  And for all partners and donors, please help us seize the moment to raise predicable funding, for eradication and transition.  I urge you to join us in Berlin this October at the pledging event* generously co-hosted by the Government of Germany.  Your decision this week to support a stronger, sustainably financed WHO will enable us to sustain capacity in countries that are now polio-free and on the pathway to transition.  Thank you all once again for your commitment to consigning polio to the history books.”

This call to action was echoed by Rotary International, the civil society partner of the global eradication effort.  Addressing the Assembly on behalf of its 1.2 million members worldwide, Rotarian and Rotary Representative to the UN in Geneva, Professor Dr Pierre Hoffmeyer, concluded:  “We call on all countries to address gaps in routine immunization levels and ensure robust surveillance to prevent further virus spread and avert future outbreaks.”


*In April 2022, GPEI partners, led by WHO Director-General, launched the ‘Investment Case for Polio Eradication’, the sister document to the Polio Eradication Strategy 2022-2026, which lays out the economic and humanitarian rationale for investing in a polio-free world, as well as the broader benefits of polio eradication.  In October 2022, Germany will generously co-host a global pledging moment, giving the international development community the opportunity to publicly re-commit to this effort, including to support a stronger and sustainably-funded WHO, so that the organization can maintain its capacity to support countries in achieving and sustaining polio eradication, and continue to benefit broader public health efforts, including support for pandemic preparedness and response.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

17 March 2022 — On Monday 7 March 2022, a case of circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus type 3 (cVDPV3) was confirmed in an unvaccinated girl aged three years and nine months in Israel. The girl had developed acute flaccid paralysis and upon testing of her stool, poliovirus was confirmed.

Further testing of the virus isolated from the girl revealed genetic links to VDPV3-strains detected in environmental samples collected between September 2021 and January 2022 from sites in Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

Circulating VDPV3 has also been confirmed in a sample taken from a contact in Jerusalem.  This child does not display any symptoms of paralysis.

A previous statement published on 10 March 2022 had indicated circulation of this VDPV3 also in occupied Palestinian territory; further field investigations concluded that at this time, circulation can only be confirmed in Israel.  This classification does not however change the risk this cVDPV3 presents to children in Israel and in the occupied Palestinian territory, nor the planned response activities.

 Although there is currently no evidence of circulation of this cVDPV3 in occupied Palestinian territory, the proximity and interconnectedness of communities on both sides of the border and the volume and frequency of cross-border population movement underscore the risk to unvaccinated children in both places.

Local health authorities in both Israel and occupied Palestinian territory are conducting field, epidemiological and virological investigations, to determine more clearly the source and origin of the isolated virus and potential risk of further spread associated with it. Discussions are ongoing to plan an immunization response as appropriate (extent and scale to be determined, potentially to include a series of immunization outreaches with both inactivated polio vaccine and bivalent oral polio vaccine, both in high-risk areas of Israel and occupied Palestinian territory).  At the same time, efforts are continuing to strengthen surveillance comprehensively in both Israel and occupied Palestinian territory.

Experts from headquarters, regional and country offices of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) partnership, which includes WHO, Rotary International (RI), the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, are working together to help ensure an appropriate response and cessation of this outbreak.

Detection of this cVDPV3 underscores the importance of strong disease surveillance and high population immunity levels, in order to minimize the risk and consequences of any poliovirus introduction or emergence.

The GPEI partnership urges all health authorities to enhance surveillance for poliovirus and implement enhanced vaccination response to prevent further transmission, so that no child is at risk of lifelong paralysis from a disease that can so easily be prevented. GPEI is committed to assisting the health authorities in their efforts to stop the cVDPV3 outbreak.

17 February 2022 As a result of ongoing disease surveillance, the Global Polio Laboratory Network (GPLN) has confirmed the presence of type 1 wild poliovirus (WPV1) in a child suffering from paralysis in Tsabango, Lilongwe, Malawi. Analysis shows that the virus is genetically linked to WPV1 that was detected in Pakistan’s Sindh province in October 2019.

The three-year-old girl in Malawi experienced onset of paralysis on 19 November 2021, and stool specimens were collected for testing on 26 and 27 November. Sequencing of the virus conducted in February by the National Institute for Communicable Diseases in South Africa and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed this case as WPV1.

Detection of WPV1 outside the world’s two remaining endemic countries, Pakistan and Afghanistan, is a serious concern and underscores the importance of prioritizing polio immunization activities. Until polio is fully eradicated, all countries remain at risk of importation and must maintain high vaccination coverage to protect all children from polio.

The GPEI is supporting health authorities in Malawi to conduct a thorough assessment of the situation and begin urgent immunization activities in the subregion to mitigate any risk of spread. Surveillance measures are also being expanded in Malawi and neighboring countries to detect any other potential undetected transmission.

As an imported case from Pakistan, this detection does not affect the WHO African Region’s wild poliovirus-free certification status officially marked in August 2020. Malawi last recorded a case of wild poliovirus in 1992. The polio eradication programme has seen importations from endemic countries to regions that have been certified wild poliovirus-free in the past, and has moved quickly to successfully stop transmission of the virus in these areas.

Polio anywhere is a threat to children everywhere. Now is the time for all parties to recommit to ending all forms of polio for good.

The Executive Board Room at WHO Headquarters during the 150th EB session. © WHO

January 2022, Geneva, Switzerland – As the world enters 2022, and with it the year when the new GPEI Strategy 2022-2026 – Delivering on a Promise – takes effect, global public health leaders at this week’s WHO Executive Board urged for intensified eradication efforts to capitalize on a unique epidemiological window of opportunity.  2021 saw the lowest ever levels of wild poliovirus cases in history, with five cases reported from the remaining two endemic countries, Pakistan and Afghanistan.  Cases of circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus have also declined compared to 2020.

Delegates attributed this favourable situation to sustained commitment from the highest levels in polio-affected areas, but issued severe warnings against complacency.  “2021 set the stage for success,” said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.  “We must now not lower our guard.”

“What is clear is that in 2022, we have a very real and realistically achievable opportunity to finish wild poliovirus from the world once and for all,” said Aidan O’Leary, Director of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, WHO.  “But what is equally clear from the discussions at the Executive Board is that there is virtually no room for error now.  If we take our foot off the accelerator even by a little bit, this virus will come roaring back, and we will perhaps have lost the best chance yet for success.  The resounding message from this week’s meeting is this:  we cannot allow this to happen.  Success is the only acceptable outcome.”

Time and again, delegates, experts and partners such as Rotary International underscored the need to fully implement and finance the GPEI Strategy 2022-2026, highlighting that it clearly laid out the roadmap to achieving a lasting world free of all forms of polioviruses, through stronger community engagement, a renewed focus on gender equity and the rollout of new tools and technologies, including the novel oral polio vaccine type 2.

Delegates expressed appreciation at the polio programme’s ability to adapt to programmatic, epidemilogical and political developments, as demonstrated in Afghanistan last year, where – for the first time in more than three years – nationwide immunization campaigns resumed. At the same time, 2021 again saw the broader benefits of polio eradication, with health workers at the forefront supporting global COVID-19 response, vaccination and immunization recovery efforts, and the polio infrastructure now increasingly being integrated into broader public health systems in polio-free countries across the world. ​

With over 50 countries transitioning out of GPEI support in 2022, Member States also supported efforts to sustain the gains in polio-free countries, calling on WHO to continue its technical support in polio-free countries, and to ensure that polio assets, tools and expertise are effectively integrated into broader immunization, disease surveillance, primary health care, and outbreak preparedness and response efforts.

“Together with our partners at Rotary International, CDC, UNICEF the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, we will continue to support Member States in their eradication efforts,” concluded O’Leary.  “But much is on the line.  We have everything in place – we need to focus now fully on optimizing our tools and tactics, and ensuring the resources to do so are available.  If those two things come together, we will be able to give the world one less infectious disease to worry about once and for all.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Containment area monitoring in India. ©WHO

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

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

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

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

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

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

For many of the women and men who spent their careers fighting polio, retirement offers not rest and relaxation, but a continuation of their life’s work towards eradication. Across the Eastern Mediterranean Region, once and forever polio fighters are inspiring the next generation of eradicators with their commitment to the cause, and belief in the benefits of a polio-free future.

Meet some of the Region’s most beloved polio fighters as they look back on their careers and try to capture their unusual motivation to continue their quest, as long as it takes.

© Dr Ali Farah

Dr Ali Farah, Somalia

Back in 1997, during the devastating civil war, Dr Ali Farah started a pilot project to conduct Somalia’s first-ever national immunization days. Today, that pilot project is one of the reasons Somalia hasn’t seen a case of wild poliovirus in more than seven years.

Dr Farah retired in 2015 after years of hard work in a highly complex, volatile, and risky context. Yet he continues to fight polio by providing technical support to the polio programme team, participating in social mobilization activities and training district-level polio officers and vaccinators.

“I always feel that we must keep working to fight polio. It’s a humanitarian action,” he said. “Technical staff still call me occasionally to receive guidance about AFP cases and other technical areas. I feel so happy to provide advice and support when needed.”

Dr Farah has also utilized his long experience with the polio programme to support COVID-19 immunization in Somalia.

“This COVID-19 campaign wouldn’t succeed if there was no polio infrastructure. We used the polio system and network to make it happen,” he said.

© Professor Elsadig Mahgoub

Professor Elsadig Mahgoub, Sudan

After completing his bachelor’s degree in 1969, Professor Elsadig Mahgoub trained as a physician and epidemiologist. He devoted his career to infectious diseases, largely focusing on disease surveillance. In February 2000, he focused his efforts on polio, particularly surveillance for acute flaccid paralysis (APF), the primary symptom of paralytic polio.

Although he retired four years later, Prof Elsadig hasn’t stopped working or providing his technical support to polio programmes in Sudan and across the Region.

“I’m obliged to continue working. My enjoyment is when I see progress towards polio eradication,” he said. “The service we’re providing is critical. We always need to be vigilant to avoid any setback to our achievements towards polio eradication. When we end polio for good, then I will truly resign.”

Dr Mohammed Hajar, Yemen

© Dr Mohammed Hajar

Yemen’s Dr Mohammad Hajar is one of the oldest, most veteran health professionals in Yemen, having served the health sector and combated infectious diseases, including polio, for around 50 years.

In 1977, Dr Hajar was one of the founders of Yemen’s expanded programme on immunization. He played a major role in planning and conducting the first-ever polio campaigns in the country, and he contributed substantially to setting up the epidemiological surveillance system for polio and other diseases.

“Even after reaching retirement age in 2009, I continued to work for the polio programme, which I consider as one of my sons. Until now, I follow up and evaluate the activities of the immunization programme and polio campaigns,” said Dr Hajar.

“I had the privilege of working with nine WHO representatives and more than ten ministers of health in Yemen to help Yemen reach a polio-free status.”

Dr Ibrahim Barakat, Egypt

© Dr Ibrahim Barakat

When Dr Ibrahim Barakat was appointed as a manager of Egypt’s expanded programme on immunization in 2000, he was determined to achieve something remarkable – a polio-free Egypt.

“It was a hard journey, but we did it. Egypt was declared polio-free in 2006,” he said.

In 2009, Dr Barakat retired, but he hardly rested. “I cannot stop working when it comes to polio eradication. I take great comfort in working hard to combat this disease whether in Egypt or any place in the world.”

After 12 years of retirement, Dr Barakat still considers his office in the Ministry of Health as “a second home.”

“I continue going to the office every working day to plan, supervise and evaluate different polio activities, including polio vaccination campaigns, risk assessment and AFP surveillance. I can never be complacent,” he said.

“This is my life. My real retirement starts when I see this disease completely wiped out from all parts of the world.”

Mr. Alam and Mrs. Fatima, Pakistan

Khursheed Alam, 68, and Kaneez Fatima, 56, are a married couple who have spent 25 years working in the polio eradication programme in Batagram district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Pakistan.

Rain or shine, Mr. Alam and Mrs. Fatima have taken part in countless door-to-door vaccination campaigns, helping to vaccinate thousands of children.

© Mr. Alam and Mrs. Fatima

“Now those little children have grown up, some have gotten married and had children who we have also vaccinated. This is fascinating and rewarding for us,” said Mr. Alam. “Wherever we go, people welcome us and don’t let us go without offering food.”

Mrs. Fatima personally knows every child in her neighborhood, including the newborns. She maintains close relationships with the mothers in her community and gives them health and hygiene advice.

Despite their age and medical complications such as asthma, their commitment to the polio programme remains strong.

“We take our work as a divine duty to serve our community for the sake of God. To see healthy children with smiles on their faces is our reward. This has kept us going for so long,” said Mrs. Fatima.

Dr Faten Kamel, Egypt

Dr Faten Kamel took a leading role in polio eradication efforts in the 1990s and early 2000s – years where the Global Polio Eradication Initiative made considerable gains against polio.

Growing up in Alexandria, Egypt, Dr Faten was exposed to the life-altering effects of polio on the people around her. She saw the human toll of the disease, and was inspired by the work of her father, a surgeon and Rotarian.

© Dr Faten Kamel

“We pushed the boundaries to make the programme more effective, shifting to house-to-house vaccination, detailed microplanning and mapping, retrieval of missed children and independent monitoring,” she said.

For Dr Faten, every child can, and must, be reached.

“If someone comes and says this area is inaccessible, this is not an answer for me. I ask: What should we do to reach? I like to make use of the ideas and experience that come from local people,” she said.

Dr Faten is proud to continue to be part of the polio eradication programme and looks forward to the day when polio eradication is achieved. After that, she plans to spend more time with her family in Australia.

“As a grandmother, I am especially determined to finish the job. I want my grandkids to grow up in a world free of polio. This will be my contribution to their futures.”

 

Reposted with permission from Gavi.

Anand Kumar learned to walk later than other children. When he did, he walked with difficulty, dragging his right leg. He was around three years old when his parents reached out for a diagnosis. “I’m sure that they tried all the doctors in Bangalore to just get it corrected. But the thing was: couldn’t do it,” he says.

His route to being an athlete was not remotely expected when he was a toddler. The doctors’ verdict ruled out recovery. Kumar had suffered irreversible damage to both his right arm and right leg as a result of an infection with poliovirus during infancy. He was unlucky: in most babies, the disease would have passed all-but-unnoticed, mistakable for a bout of the flu. But approximately one in 200 poliomyelitis patients suffer permanent paralysis. Around 5 – 10% of people paralysed risk dying if the muscles in their respiratory systems are immobilised.

Although the world’s first safe and effective polio vaccine – the Oral Polio Vaccine (OPV)1  – had been introduced decades before, and countries like the USA were newly polio-free, in the early 1980s, just 2% of India’s children had been administered the recommended three doses. During 1981 alone, India recorded more than 38,000 polio cases. The real tally may have stood much higher: researchers have pegged the actual incidence during the 1980s at closer to 200,000 cases a year.

By 1990, the annual infection figures were in decline. But the trend towards zero cases was halting, and jagged. In 2002, India’s depleted but persistent polio case-load jumped six-fold. A year later, India was home to 83% of all the new polio cases in the world. Uttar Pradesh alone, the vast and troubled northern state in which UNICEF had recently been obliged to launch a social mobilisation scheme to counter vaccine hesitancy, accounted for 64% of the world’s polio burden. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative redoubled its immunisation efforts, but as certain leading anti-polio campaigners would later admit, to some onlookers, the challenges of elimination in India looked at times simply too steep to surmount.

© Gavi/Prakhar Deep Jain

Meanwhile, in the late 1990s, Anand Kumar was leaving school for college with the frustrated awareness that he had been passed over. “Due to my disability, I was not active like other kids, so I was not taken into consideration for cultural activities or sports,” he says. “I was feeling that I was missing something.”

As such, he found his way to badminton late: aged nineteen, years too old to be taken on as a beginner by the coaches he approached for training, but newly cognisant of the existence and possibilities of para-sport. He  watched the coach at his local club from the bleachers – “luckily, the coach was a left-hander, and I’m always a left-hand player” – then practised the technique he observed on the court on his own. He improved quickly, began beating his able-bodied opponents.

In 2001, he was invited to represent India at a para-badminton tournament in Germany. “I thought, okay: I’m defeating the able-bodied players – and I can defeat the disabled players also.” Instead, he lost every match. Looking back, he calls it “a very good experience.” That was the year he decided to practice “most seriously.”

Success, Anand Kumar earnestly points out, has not come easily. “I have had to prove myself in each and every field,” he says. He meets young players inspired by his achievements – some 110 medals, including an Asian Games bronze, a BWF Para-Badminton World Championship doubles gold and a prestigious Ekalavya sporting award – “but I always like to share my other part of the story – which was very difficult, in which I struggled hard to come to this level,” he says. “Like, I started in the year 2001 to play an international tournament, but it took 15 long years to be a World Champion”.

© Gavi/Prakhar Deep Jain

That struggle has only been incidentally shaped by his disability, he clarifies. “Life is always challenging, whether it’s in an able body or a disabled body,” he says. The message he shares with the students he now coaches at his own Academy, able-bodied and disabled alike, is to take up life’s challenge with determination – put simply, to never give up.

Likewise, it took a number of tacks and switches to drive down polio in India – the introduction of improved bivalent polio vaccine in 2010; the institution of rolling vaccination at strategic transport hubs; hand-washing and sanitation campaigns to tackle the diarrhoea epidemic that was found to be weakening polio vaccine effectiveness, to name just a few – but in 2012, India finally arrived at zero polio cases.

“Today we are calling India polio-free,” Kumar says. “It’s only because of vaccination.” He’s right. But he’ll also tell you that no victory is ever quite that straightforward.

©WHO Afghanistan/RaMin Afshar

25 August 2021 – “Poliovirus circulation does not stop during conflicts, it does not stop during emergencies. If anything, it makes children and families even more vulnerable by adding a layer of risk”, says a Polio Provincial Officer from Balkh province.

Despite risks and challenges due to the recent insecurity, the polio programme is staying and delivering for the children of Afghanistan. Our 315 staff and more than 70,000 polio health workers across the country remain firm in their resolve to eradicate polio. Their work ensures that critical polio activities continue while adapting to the rapidly changing situation and carry on even when hostility levels are high.

In 2021, one wild poliovirus type 1 (WPV1) and 43 circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus type 2 (cVDPV2) cases have been confirmed in Afghanistan. All cases have been reported in areas of the country that have for years been inaccessible for door-to-door vaccination campaigns, which left at least 3 million children repeatedly deprived of polio vaccination. Population displacement brought about by the current situation could further impact the programme’s access to children and increase immunity gaps against polio, triggering a rise in transmission. It is also feared that the mixing and movement of unvaccinated populations due to the upheaval faced by thousands of Afghans may spur polio transmission.

“We are working with all actors, to ensure there are no delays or disruptions to polio vaccination campaigns and overall routine immunization. Gains of the past twenty years cannot be lost. Children need immunization now, they must not bear the brunt of conflict and instability. We are calling for unimpeded access to all children,” says Dr. Dapeng Luo, WHO Representative in Afghanistan.

Pre-planning and resilience measures

While the current situation is a challenge, it is by no means the first the polio programme has faced. Using its wealth of knowledge from many years of operating in complex environments, the programme has invested in robust, pre-emptive contingency planning to be able to adapt and continue delivering. Regular monitoring of the security situation has allowed for nimble decision making.

The programme has moved swiftly to ensure safety and security of its staff. Its international staff footprint has been significantly reduced and vulnerable national staff and their dependants have been temporarily relocated to Kabul. Flexible working arrangements and salary advances have been provided to cover urgent needs of staff and polio health workers, who are the backbone of polio operations.

Around eighty percent of polio staff remain at their field locations and working to maintain essential polio services, supported remotely by colleagues who have needed to relocate.

“I am filled with pride for my team and their strong resolve, courage and passion. They are the heroes children of Afghanistan need right now. Thanks to their efforts, Acute Flaccid Paralysis (AFP) and environmental surveillance never stopped.  Except for a few locations that experienced temporary disruptions last week, stool sample collection, visits to active health facilities, case investigation, the shipment of samples to Pakistan for laboratory testing, and the collection and transport of sewage samples for polio environmental surveillance remain unaffected. COVID-19 surveillance, which the polio programme has been supporting since last year, has also continued,” says Irfan Elahi Akbar, Polio Team Leader, WHO Afghanistan.

©WHO EMRO

Vaccination continues

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.

On June 10 2021, the GPEI held a virtual event to launch the new strategy. Here is a recording of the event. The video is also available with subtitles in: French | Arabic |

 

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:

  • further integrating polio activities with essential health services—including routine immunization—and building closer partnerships with high-risk communities to co-design immunization events and better meet their health needs, particularly in Pakistan and Afghanistan;
  • applying a gender equality lens to the implementation of programme activities, recognizing the importance of female workers to build community trust and improve vaccine acceptance;
  • strengthening advocacy to urge greater accountability and ownership of the program at all levels, including enhanced performance measurement and engagement with new partners, such as the new Eastern Mediterranean Regional Subcommittee on Polio Eradication and Outbreaks; and,
  • implementing innovative new tools, such as digital payments to frontline health workers, to further improve the impact and efficiency of polio campaigns.

“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.

Additional quotes:

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.”

Media contacts:

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

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

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.

Watch launch the event.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”

Egypt’s Minister of Health and Population, H.E Dr Hala Zayed, one of the elected co-chairs for the new subcommittee, making her interventions during the inaugural meeting on 16 March, 2021. © WHO/EMRO

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.

Press Statement following inaugural meeting.

Anisa speaks with mothers about the polio virus and the importance of vaccinating children. © UNICEF Afghanistan/2021/Sayed Maroof Hamdard

Anisa’s story epitomizes the heroic contribution of women polio workers in Afghanistan who continue building trust in vaccines among parents and caregivers in the quest to immunize every last child and end polio.

The yellow taxi drives slowly on an unpaved Afghan road. It has rained heavily turning the detritus on the ground into a muddy quagmire, and the car labours in its efforts not to get stuck.

Stopping near a house, a young woman in a black scarf and traditional dress climbs out of the car. This woman is Anisa, a UNICEF consultant for the polio programme. Today she is visiting parents who are refusing to let their children be vaccinated, to explain why the two drops of oral polio vaccine (OPV) are critical for their health and wellbeing.

We enter one of the houses and meet an elderly woman.

“I am not vaccinating my grandchildren!” The woman sounds resolute, but we stay anyway. “Can we talk about something else?” Anisa asks calmly. Shortly thereafter, we’re drinking tea and praising the mild weather. The grandmother tells us her left leg was almost fully paralyzed half a year ago and she can’t walk normally.

“This is horrible. You should go to the clinic. I can recommend a good doctor for you. And do you also know that children who are not immunized can also be paralysed because of polio?” Anisa starts getting to the point of our visit. “You have two wonderful granddaughters and it’s easy to protect them.”

© UNICEF Afghanistan/Sayed Maroof Hamdard

The grandmother doesn’t seem convinced but asks questions about the rumours around the vaccine. Anisa explains that OPV is safe, halal for Muslims, and it is the only way to protect children from getting polio. One hour later, the grandmother nods – she finally agreed to vaccinate. It is hard to say what was the turning point that convinced her. Maybe the photos of paralyzed polio survivors that Anisa showed her on her phone; maybe information that polio vaccination is required for Hajj and Umrah (religious pilgrimages to Mecca which must be done at least once in lifetime by all Muslims); or simply the fact that Anisa vaccinated her own two children, and they are safe and well. The fact that the grandmother finally agreed to vaccination feels like a big victory – but it’s just a small step in the battle against polio.

Anisa has been working in the health sector for almost 10 years – as a midwife, female mobiliser vaccinator, nutrition officer and a clinical mentor. She first started to support the polio programme as a Provincial Communication Officer (PCO), supervising over a hundred communication cluster supervisors.

During the national immunization campaigns, even during the COVID-19 pandemic, Anisa supports the teams by conducting information sessions for refusal families and arranging discussion sessions for community groups. She also holds awareness raising sessions on how to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“After my first day working with refusal families, I wanted to leave the job. I didn’t convince anyone. But then I managed to convince one family with five children, who have never been vaccinated and it felt like such a victory that I decided to stay,” remembers Anisa. “Now I know how to approach different people; I understand what type of information is important to persuade them to make the right decision.”

Little girl receiving polio drops © WHO/AFRO

13 March 2021, Brazzaville – To rapidly and sustainably stop outbreaks of circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus type 2 (cVDPV2) in African countries, a modified vaccine, known as novel oral polio vaccine type 2 (nOPV2) is now being rolled out.

Last year, on 25 August 2020, Africa made history with the African Region Certification Commission for Polio Eradication independently certifying that the Region was free of wild poliovirus. This is the second disease to be kicked out of Africa after smallpox more than 40 years ago.

This achievement is remarkable, considering that in the 1990s wild poliovirus paralysed more than 75,000 African children every single year – a situation that prompted Nelson Mandela in 1996, joined by Rotary International and other partners, to issue a stark call to action: Kick Polio Out of Africa!

All strains of wild poliovirus have now been interrupted in the continent. The last case of wild poliovirus was in August 2016.

However, this tremendous progress remains an unfinished success story. Although Africa is free of wild poliovirus, countries continue to be affected by another form of the virus, known as circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus type 2 (cVDPV2). Such strains are rare, but can occur in under-immunized communities with limited access to safe water and sanitation.

Populations that are adequately immunized are protected from both wild and vaccine-derived strains of poliovirus. However, because of gaps in immunization coverage across Africa, 20 countries have been affected by cVDPV2 outbreaks since 2018.

Now, intensified efforts are being launched to finish polio once and for all, to ensure no child in Africa will ever be paralysed by any strain of this virus.

The novel OPV2 vaccine has been in development since 2011, and in November 2020, WHO’s Prequalification Team issued an emergency use listing (EUL) recommendation enabling initial roll-out in countries affected by cVDPV2 outbreaks. Soon after the issuance of the EUL, the WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, advocated to countries to use this additional tool to stop all forms of polio in Africa.

For nOPV2 to be deployed and used under the EUL, special readiness requirements and criteria need to be met. The Polio Rapid Response Team at WHO’s Regional Office for Africa, in close coordination with other Global Polio Eradication Initiative partners, has been working intensely with countries and partners across the continent to respond to outbreaks of cVDPV2 and prepare for the roll out of nOPV2.

As countries in the Region gear up to roll out this new tool for outbreak response, with WHO’s support they are developing supply, demand and deployment plans; ensuring expedited pathways for national regulatory approvals; enhancing surveillance and laboratory capacity; investing in meeting cold-chain capacity and vaccine management requirements; ensuring vaccine safety monitoring and follow-up mechanisms are in place; and developing communication plans and engaging communities to enhance understanding of the vaccine and risks posed by cVDPV2.

These preparations continue even amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, and the existing polio eradication infrastructure has been instrumental in preparing for the nOPV2 vaccine as well as more broadly supporting COVID-19 response efforts across the continent.

Years of extensive development and preparations are now about to pay off, as nOPV2 will now be utilized for outbreak response. “This is tremendous news for Africa’s polio eradication effort, and in particular for Africa’s children who are currently at risk of lifelong paralysis due to circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus,” said Dr Moeti. “This tool can stop cVDPV2 but only if it reaches all at-risk children. We must apply the lessons from the decades of action to kick wild polio out of Africa. This will require the collective action of political leaders, traditional and religious leaders, public health experts, partners, donors, frontline health workers and of course parents and caregivers. Together, we can protect all African children from all forms of this virus.”

More information on nOPV2.

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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).

Outgoing Director Michel Zaffran (L) and Aidan O’Leary (R) ©WHO/Katerina Alves

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.

Amna showing her marked finger after receiving the life-saving polio vaccine in Karachi, Pakistan – one of the two remaining endemic countries.© WHO/EMRO

 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.

©WHO/Katerina Alves

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.