The Global Polio Laboratory Network (GPLN) has confirmed the isolation of type 2 vaccine-derived poliovirus (VDPV2) from environmental samples in London, United Kingdom (UK), which were detected as part of ongoing disease surveillance.  It is important to note that the virus has been isolated from environmental samples only – no associated cases of paralysis have been detected.  Recent coverage for the primary course of DTaP/IPV/Hib/HepB vaccination, which protects against several diseases including polio, in London suggests immunization coverage of 86.6%.

Initially, vaccine-like type 2 poliovirus (SL2) had been isolated from samples taken from the same site between February and May 2022. Genetic analysis suggests that the new VDPV2 and previous SL2 isolates have a common origin, still to be identified, but the technical definition and criteria for ‘circulation’ of VDPV2 are not met at this time.  Additional sewage samples collected upstream from the main waste-water treatment plant’s inlet are being analysed.

Investigations and response by the UK Health Security Agency are ongoing  to:

  • assess both origin and risk of circulation associated with these isolates;
  • strengthen poliovirus surveillance including enterovirus and environmental;
  • explore routine immunization catch-up of children who are under-immunized, including of families that have recently arrived in the UK from countries with recent use of type 2-containing oral polio vaccine; and,
  • enhance communications about this incident to health professionals and caregivers.

It is important that all countries, in particular those with a high volume of travel and contact with polio-affected countries and areas, strengthen surveillance in order to rapidly detect any new virus importation and to facilitate a rapid response. Countries, territories, and areas should also maintain uniformly high routine immunization coverage at the district level and at the lowest administrative level to protect children from polio and to minimize the consequences of any new virus being introduced.

Any form of poliovirus anywhere is a threat to children everywhere. It is critical that the GPEI Polio Eradication Strategy 2022-2026 is fully resourced and fully implemented everywhere, to ensure a world free of all forms of poliovirus can be attained.

A polio worker speaks to a family in Borno State, Nigeria. In Nigeria, polio personnel have played a vital role to educate communities on COVID-19 and register individuals for their vaccination, underlining the necessity of sustaining these networks. © WHO/Andrew Esiebo

As the first COVID-19 vaccines arrived into Somalia, polio programme staff were in position. Drawing on years of experience working to tackle polio and other health threats, staff had taken on key roles in logistics, cold-chain management and monitoring to ensure the success of the vaccine rollout.

Mohamud Shire, a WHO polio eradication officer working in the central zone of Somalia, explained, “Regional and district polio officers acted as supervisors of the vaccine rollout. Some of the polio health workers worked as COVID-19 vaccinators, whereas others were social mobilizers.”

A new WHO report entitled, ‘Role of the polio network in COVID-19 vaccine delivery and essential immunization: lessons learned for successful transition’, underscores the value of the polio network as an agile and experienced public health workforce, able to pivot to support national health programmes to deliver COVID-19 vaccines, and strengthen essential immunization. The introduction of COVID-19 vaccines in 2021 stretched country health systems, requiring all hands on deck to deliver vaccines to the most vulnerable. In this challenging context, hundreds of polio eradication staff led efforts in areas ranging from coordination and community mobilization, to training and surveillance. This work proves that sustaining these capacities is the way forward to build stronger, more equitable and resilient health systems.

The polio transition process aims to sustain the workforce and infrastructure set up to eradicate polio to strengthen immunization programmes, protect against outbreaks, and deliver essential health services to communities. A 2020 report documented the outstanding contributions of the polio network to the emergency stage of the COVID-19 pandemic, with over 5900 staff in the 20 priority countries for polio transition stepping up. The new report provides evidence of the role of polio staff to support essential immunization, and makes the case to transition their valuable skills and expertise to strengthen immunization programmes, building on the COVID-19 experience.

Dr Olivi Ondchintia Putilala Silalahi, WHO Indonesia national professional officer for routine immunization, inspects a COVID-19 vaccination site in Indonesia. © WHO/Indonesia

In Sudan, 13 polio staff coordinated with partner agencies, trained vaccinators and provided comprehensive technical support for the COVID-19 rollout. In Nepal, 15 polio and immunization officers monitored the quality of COVID-19 vaccine sessions, whilst in India, polio and immunization Open Data Kit software was used to record data from more than 450,000 COVID-19 vaccination sessions. In Nigeria, at least 121 polio staff worked to sensitize communities to COVID-19, support trainings for the e-registration of vaccine recipients, and manage Adverse Events Following Immunization (AEFI). In these countries, this work builds upon historical contributions of polio staff to essential immunization, including working with national essential immunization programmes for the co-delivery of polio with other vaccines, and using electronic surveillance tools developed for polio eradication to detect other vaccine-preventable diseases.

The report also details lessons learned from the COVID-19 vaccine rollout. One is the value of integrating polio functions into other health programmes. The pandemic response showed that with an integrated approach it is possible to achieve more with limited resources. For instance, in the Eastern Mediterranean Region, the pandemic experience has led to the introduction of Integrated Public Health Teams, which bring together public health staff to provide broader services to communities.

Another lesson is the value of transferable skills that can contribute to vaccination across the life-course. Polio personnel have specific strengths in childhood vaccination, but the pandemic has shown that their cross-cutting skills – including coordination, disease surveillance, monitoring, data management and microplanning – can be used to make progress towards global immunization goals. The pandemic has impacted rates of routine immunization, leading to an increase in numbers of un- or under-vaccinated children. Harnessing the skills of polio personnel, and integrating them into other programmes, is key to achieving the goals of the Immunization Agenda 2030.

Polio vaccinators travel on camel during the November 2021 integrated measles-rubella and polio campaign in Pakistan. Close collaboration between the polio and immunization programmes helped to reach over 90 million children. © Gavi/Asad Zaidi

The report further serves to emphasise that polio transition and polio eradication are interdependent, and must go hand-in-hand. In the context of ongoing polio outbreaks, the sustainable transition of functions in polio-free counties is a necessary step to ensure that health systems are resilient to future health threats, including poliovirus importations.

To support these aspects, sustainable financing for the integration and transition of polio essential public health functions is vital. As of 2022, over 50 countries have transitioned out of GPEI support, but still require funding and technical support from WHO and other partners. Long-term domestic and international support is needed to ensure that the knowledge, expertise and lessons learned from polio eradication continue to serve populations. This is especially important as governments face long-term financial constraints on their health spending due to the pandemic.

As we move towards health systems recovery, we must ensure that the polio infrastructure is transitioned in a sustainable manner, to support more resilient health systems.

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.

Partners in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) are extremely saddened to learn of the recent passing of Danny Graymore OBE, and wish to extend our condolences and love to his family and friends.

Danny was compassionate, fiercely intelligent and a tireless advocate for polio eradication, global health and human rights. He inspired many in his work for a fairer, more equitable world.

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.

GENEVA, 26 April 2022

Today, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) announced that it is seeking new commitments to fund its 2022-2026 Strategy at a virtual event to launch its investment case. The strategy, if fully funded, will see the vaccination of 370 million children annually for the next five years and the continuation of global surveillance activities for polio and other diseases in 50 countries.

During the virtual launch, the Government of Germany, which holds the G7 presidency in 2022, announced that the country will co-host the pledging moment for the GPEI Strategy during the 2022 World Health Summit in October.

“A strong and fully funded polio programme will benefit health systems around the world. That is why it is so crucial that all stakeholders now commit to ensuring that the new eradication strategy can be implemented in full,” said Niels Annen, Parliamentary State Secretary to the Federal Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development, Germany. “The polio pledging moment at the World Health Summit this October is a critical opportunity for donors and partners to reiterate their support for a polio-free world. We can only succeed if we make polio eradication our shared priority.”

Wild poliovirus cases are at a historic low and the disease is endemic in just Pakistan and Afghanistan, presenting a unique opportunity to interrupt transmission. However, recent developments, due in part to impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, underscore the fragility of this progress. In February 2022, Malawi confirmed its first case of wild polio in three decades and the first on the African continent since 2016, linked to virus originating in Pakistan, and in April 2022 Pakistan recorded its first wild polio case since January 2021. Meanwhile, outbreaks of cVDPV, variants of the poliovirus that can emerge in under-immunized communities, were recently detected in Israel and Ukraine and circulate in several countries in Africa and Asia.

The investment case outlines new modelling that shows achieving eradication could save an estimated US $33.1 billion this century, compared to the price of controlling polio outbreaks. At the launch event, GPEI leaders and polio-affected countries urged renewed political and financial support to end polio and protect children and future generations from the paralysis it causes.

“Despite enormous progress, polio still paralyses far too many children around the world – and even one child is too many,” said UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell.  “We simply cannot allow another child to suffer from this devastating disease – not when we know how to prevent it. Not when we are so close. We must do whatever it takes to finish the fight – and achieve a polio-free world for every child.”

“The re-emergence of polio in Malawi after three decades was a tragic reminder that until polio is wiped off the face of the earth, it can spread globally and harm children anywhere. I urge all countries to unite behind the Global Polio Eradication Initiative and ensure it has the support and resources it needs to end polio for everyone everywhere,” said Hon. Khumbize Kandodo Chiponda MP, Minister of Health, Malawi.

The new eradication strategy centres on integrating polio activities with other essential health programs in affected countries, better reaching children in the highest risk communities who have never been vaccinated, andstrengthening engagement with local leaders and influencers to build trust and vaccine acceptance.

“The children of Pakistan and Afghanistan deserve to live a life free of an incurable, paralyzing disease. With continued global support, we can make polio a disease of the past,” said Dr Shahzad Baig, National Coordinator, Pakistan Polio Eradication Programme. “The polio programme is also working to increase overall health equity in the highest-risk communities by addressing area needs holistically, including by strengthening routine immunization, improving health facilities, and organizing health camps.”

The investment case outlines how support for eradication efforts will enable essential health services in under-served communities and strengthen the world’s defences against future health threats.

Since 2020, GPEI infrastructure and staff have provided critical support to governments as they respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, including by promoting COVID-safe practices, leveraging polio surveillance and lab networks to detect the virus, and assisting COVID-19 vaccination efforts through health worker trainings, community mobilization, data management and other activities.

“The global effort to consign polio to the history books will not only help to spare future generations from this devastating disease, but serve to strengthen health systems and health security,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General.

Additional quotes from the GPEI Investment Case:

“We have the knowledge and tools to wipe polio off the face of the earth. GPEI needs the resources to take us the last mile to eradicating this awful disease. Investing in GPEI will also help us detect and respond to other health emergencies. We can’t waver now. Let’s all take this opportunity to fully support GPEI, and create a world in which no child is paralyzed by polio ever again,” said Bill Gates, Co-chair, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

“An investment in polio eradication goes further than fighting one disease. It is the ultimate investment in both equity and sustainability – it is for everyone and forever. An important component of GPEI’s Strategy focuses on integrating the planning and coordination of polio activities and essential health services to reach zero-dose children who have never been immunized with routine vaccines, therefore contributing to the goals of the Immunization Agenda 2030.” said Seth Berkley, Chief Executive Officer, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.

“Twenty million people are walking today because of polio vaccination, and we have learned, improved and innovated along the way. We are stronger and more resilient as we enter the last lap of this marathon to protect all future generations of the world’s children from polio. Please join us; with our will and our collective resources, we can seize the unprecedented opportunity to cross the finish line that lies before us,” said Mike McGovern, Chair, International PolioPlus Committee, Rotary International.

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Media contacts:

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

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

Sabrina Sidhu
UNICEF New York
Email: ssidhu@unicef.org
Tel: +19174761537

Yemen is currently experiencing twin outbreaks of circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus type 1 and type 2 (cVDPV1 and cVDPV2). Both strains of poliovirus emerge in populations with low immunity and both can result in lifelong paralysis and even death.

Since 2019, 35 and 14 children have been paralysed by cVDPV1 and cVDPV2 respectively, three of the cVDPV2 cases confirmed in the past 10 days alone. The cVDPV2 outbreak, in particular, is ongoing and expanding and has already spread to other countries in WHO’s Eastern Mediterranean Region and UNICEF’s Middle East and North Africa Region.  At its fourth meeting on 9 February 2022, the Eastern Mediterranean Ministerial Regional Subcommittee on Polio Eradication and Outbreaks issued a statement, expressing deep concern around these expanding outbreaks and requesting all authorities in Yemen to facilitate resumption of house-to-house vaccination campaigns in all areas.

The Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) partners strongly recommend high-coverage mass vaccination campaigns to stop a cVDPV outbreak.  The vaccination response must achieve at least 90% of children vaccinated repeatedly with polio vaccine to protect them from polio and prevent seeding new vaccine-derived emergences. Therefore, the guidelines in the Polio Outbreak Response Standard Operating Procedures recommend that the vaccination response to polio outbreaks should be conducted using the house-to-house vaccine delivery strategy to maximize coverage of vulnerable children.

The GPEI urges the health authorities in Sana’a to conduct high quality house-to-house vaccination campaigns to stop the two concurrent outbreaks as soon as possible. If the current conditions in parts of Yemen do not permit house-to-house vaccination, then an intensified fixed-site vaccination campaign with appropriate social mobilization by the community and religious leaders trusted by the local communities should be implemented to maximize coverage among all vulnerable children.

Yemeni children face no shortage of threats: prolonged conflict, a devastated healthcare system, hunger and disease. But polio is one disease that can easily be prevented. Its circulation can be stopped in Yemen or anywhere else by vaccinating all children with oral polio vaccine.

The GPEI partners – WHO, Rotary International, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, UNICEF, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Gavi – are committed to providing support to all stakeholders in Yemen for responding to the polio outbreaks including in conducting polio vaccination campaigns that can reach all vulnerable children.

The Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) is extremely concerned about the unfolding effects of the current crisis in Ukraine on the country’s health system.  A functioning health system must be kept neutral and protected from all political or security issues affecting countries, to ensure that people have continued access to critical and essential care.

At the same time, we have seen time and again that large-scale population movements, insecurity and hampered access contribute greatly to the emergence and/or spread of infectious diseases, such as polio.

Ukraine is currently affected by a circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus type 2 (cVDPV2) outbreak, with the most recent case detected in January 2022 (with disease onset in December 2021).

A national supplemental polio immunization campaign targeting nearly 140,000 children throughout Ukraine who had not been vaccinated against polio began on 1 February 2022, but is currently paused, as health authorities have shifted focus towards emergency services. Surveillance to detect and report new cases of polio is also disrupted, increasing the risk of undetected spread of the disease among vulnerable populations. The GPEI is working to urgently develop contingency plans to support Ukraine and prevent further spread of polio.

The GPEI has a long history of working in a variety of complex environments, and will continue to adapt its operations to the reality on the ground, to the degree possible, without compromising on the safety and security of health workers.  At the same time, immunization and surveillance is being assessed in neighbouring countries, to minimize the risk and consequences of any potential infectious disease emergence/spread resulting from the current large-scale population movements.  It is critical that necessary resources are mobilized and made available to assist with the humanitarian needs, including relief, disease response/prevention efforts both in Ukraine and in neighbouring countries.

After the safe and successful rollout of nationwide polio campaigns since November 2021, we have received tragic news that 8 health workers at the forefront have been killed this morning in a series of shootings in Takhar and Kunduz in northeast Afghanistan.  The vaccination campaign has been suspended in both provinces.

A statement has been issued by the Regional Director of WHO’s Eastern Mediterranean Region, Dr Ahmed Al-Mandhari, as well as by the United Nations in the country, condemning these attacks, expressing condolences to the families and underscoring that the provision of health and the safety of healthworkers at the forefront are paramount, and must be kept neutral to any geo-political situation anywhere.

Our thoughts and prayers are both with the families and our teams on the ground at this time.

WHO staff completing a seroprevalence survey, which estimates the percentage of people in a population who have antibodies against COVID-19, in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, December 2020. © WHO/Bangladesh
WHO staff completing a seroprevalence survey, which estimates the percentage of people in a population who have antibodies against COVID-19, in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, December 2020. © WHO/Bangladesh

When the first consignment of COVID-19 vaccines arrived in Rumbek, the capital of Lakes State in South Sudan, WHO State Polio Officer Dr Jiel Jiel was prepared. In support of the Ministry of Health, and in collaboration with partners, he had been working for weeks to help coordinate the vaccine rollout, using skills gained from working to eradicate polio.

He explains, “For the COVID-19 rollout, the implementing partner turned to us, as they know we have experience in delivering vaccines. The expertise from the top to the bottom of the polio team was utilised.”

In countries where the polio programme has a large footprint, staff provided exceptional support to the initial stages of COVID-19 pandemic response. Since then, polio teams have been assisting with COVID-19 vaccination. Their contributions – including to vaccine logistics, social mobilization, surveillance, training and data management – demonstrate their wide skillset and their ability to help make progress on broader health priorities.

In the African Region, over 500 polio eradication staff assisted with the COVID-19 vaccine rollout in 2021. 39% of that workforce reported spending between 20 – 50% of their time on COVID-19 vaccination efforts, whilst 37% reported dedicating more than 50% of their time. Staff balanced this work with resumed polio vaccination campaigns, which were paused to protect against possible spread of COVID-19 in the early stages of the pandemic.

State Polio Officer Dr Jiel Jiel (far left) with colleagues at a COVID-19 vaccination site in South Sudan, July 2021. © WHO South Sudan
State Polio Officer Dr Jiel Jiel (far left) with colleagues at a COVID-19 vaccination site in South Sudan, July 2021. © WHO South Sudan

 

Their efforts demonstrate the potential for the polio workforce and assets to contribute in the long term to strengthening health systems and building back better. The polio transition process aims to leverage the skills, relationships and reach of the polio workforce in an integrated manner to make progress on a range of health priorities – especially essential immunization, vaccine-preventable disease surveillance and emergency response. The indispensable work of the polio workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic shows that sustaining this network is a good investment for national and global health priorities.

Dr Eshetu Wassie, a National Polio Officer in Ethiopia, explains that the polio workforce is well positioned to assist with reaching health goals.

“The polio experience has helped to bring the WHO workforce together, as COVID-19 required a multisectoral response. This was easier to organize through the polio platform, which was used to bringing partners together.”

Polio staff have undertaken a wide range of tasks. In Nigeria, ensuring the availability of both COVID-19 and polio vaccines has reduced the number of visits families need to make to health facilities, whilst in Cameroon, polio staff have developed communications and advocacy materials to promote COVID-19 vaccine uptake. In many countries, the polio workforce have supported the collection of data on Adverse Events Following Immunization (AEFI) for COVID-19, and have used their experiences in polio eradication to help coordinate effective rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine in different contexts.

A man is vaccinated against COVID-19 in Banadir Hospital, Mogadishu, Somalia, March 2021. © WHO Somalia/ Ismail Taxta
A man is vaccinated against COVID-19 in Banadir Hospital, Mogadishu, Somalia, March 2021. © WHO Somalia/ Ismail Taxta

In the Eastern Mediterranean Region, the polio workforce in Somalia helped to rollout COVID-19 vaccines throughout 2021. Mohamud Shire, a Senior Polio Eradication Officer in Somalia, explains, “Some of the polio volunteers worked as vaccinators, whilst others were social mobilizers. Regional and District Polio Officers were supervisors of the vaccine rollout. And it helped that communities know and trust us.”

In the South East Asian Region, the integrated immunization and surveillance networks used their experience of introducing new vaccines, including Inactivated Polio Vaccine, to help ensure a smooth rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines. In India and Nepal, support provided by the network has included capacity building, campaign monitoring and contributing to guideline development. In Bangladesh, polio and measles campaign microplans were used to conduct a successful pilot of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout. In Indonesia and Myanmar network support included dissemination of guidelines and cold chain monitoring.

With populations in low-income countries around the world still un- or under-vaccinated against COVID-19, and health systems under severe strain, the continued support of the polio network is likely to be critical to recover from the pandemic. Looking ahead, Dr Jiel Jiel underlines the importance of transitioning and sustaining the polio workforce in polio-free contexts so that they can contribute to health systems recovery, “If we were not present, it would be more difficult for the health system to reach the vaccine coverage that is desired.”

“WHO staff have built up our skills, we have institutional memory and you can rely on us to produce results.”

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.

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 funding will be used to vaccinate approximately 16 million children in 84 highest-risk districts. © UAE

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.

The Emirates Polio Campaign plays an important role in driving eradication efforts at the frontline of Pakistan’s most vulnerable communities. © UAE

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.”

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 |

Chaudhry Hakim Ali and Muhammad Usman enter data after collecting samples for COVID-19 testing at a laboratory located at the National Institute of Health in Islamabad, Pakistan. © WHO/EMRO

The Heads of State of the G7 countries, at the annual meeting held in the UK on 11-13 June 2021, highlighted the need for increased global efforts to detect global public health threats, by building international surveillance on existing networks such as polio surveillance.  In the context of COVID-19, and in their official communiqué, the G7 stated: “we support the establishment… of a global pandemic radar… that builds on existing detection systems such as the influenza and polio programmes.”

The unique value of the polio infrastructure in supporting COVID-19 response efforts was recently underscored by other global fora, including the World Health Assembly in May, and the G7 health ministers meeting in June.

An integral part of the new GPEI Strategy 2022-2026 is to ensure close coordination with broader public health efforts, to not only achieve a lasting world free of all polioviruses, but also one where the polio infrastructure will continue to benefit other public health emergencies long after the disease has been eradicated.

Key to success, however, will be the continued support and engagement of the international development community, including by ensuring that previous pledges are fully and rapidly operationalized.

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

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:

  • 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.

Actress Grace Kelly distributed March of Dimes literature to leaders of the Mothers’ march on Polio. © Yale School of Medicine

Even long before the GPEI was formed, Monaco played a leading role in early initiatives to develop a polio vaccine. In the 1950s, Her Serene Highness Princess Grace was an advocate for the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis in the United States of America, founded by President Franklin D. Roosevelt (himself a polio survivor).

The Foundation became known as the “March of Dimes”, so called because of its far-reaching call for funds to research a cure for polio, which at the time was one of the most serious communicable diseases in the USA. Grants from the NFIP facilitated the work of researchers such as Dr. Jonas Salk, creator of the first successful vaccine against poliovirus. But it also facilitated the work of unsung heroes, such as Dr. Leone Farrell at the University of Toronto’s Connaught Medical Research Laboratories. Farrell devised the “Toronto method” for mass production of vaccines, which made the massive field trials of Salk’s vaccine possible, paving the way for the mass vaccination campaigns which have brought us so far in eradicating polio.

Leone Farrell, PhD, was a key figure in the successful mass production of the polio vaccine, enabling Jonas Salk and his team enough serum to perform the initial polio vaccine trials in 1954. © Sanofi Pasteur Canada Archives

Farrell is one of thousands of women past and present at the forefront of the GPEI. The role of women in polio eradication is supported by Polio Gender Champions, who work to raise the voices of women engaged in the programme, and keep gender equality high on the global public health agenda.

And today, Monaco’s proud tradition of support for gender equality and polio eradication continues, with the announcement that H.E. Ms. Carole Lanteri, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Monaco to the United Nations Office at Geneva will become the newest Gender Champion for Polio Eradication. The Ambassador, formerly co-chair of the GPEI’s Polio Partners Group, explains the significance of this new role:

“As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to affect our lives, women pay a higher price with regressive effects on gender equality. If gender dynamics are not taken into consideration, polio interventions will not be as effective, with the potential risk of exacerbating existing inequalities. More than ever before we must advocate for a meaningful inclusion of women in decision making processes and adopt policies in health programming to reflect this. Today my commitment to these causes is even stronger thanks to my new role as Gender Champion. Following in the footsteps of Princess Grace and taking forward Monaco’s longstanding commitment to gender equality and polio eradication, I am determined to use my voice to advocate for gender mainstreaming in polio eradication to reach every last child.”

Ambassador Lanteri joins the ranks of other gender champions striving to raise awareness of the role of women in polio eradication and on the importance of addressing gender related barriers to immunization. Their work will be instrumental not only in eradicating polio, but also in creating a legacy for recognizing and empowering the role of women in major public health initiatives.

With the polio vaccine, new-born children have a better chance of a healthy life © WHO/Chad

Therese and Léonie reminded me of this hard truth in a recent visit to a hospital in N’Djaména, Chad. One is a newborn girl and the other is a veteran of the campaign to eradicate a human disease for only the second time in history –polio-.

As a Gender Champion for Polio Eradication, I have committed to supporting the global initiative to eradicate polio and the women who work tirelessly to protect children from lifelong paralysis. During my visit to Chad, I had the honour of giving two drops of life-saving oral polio vaccine to two newborns.

Protected from a disease which once struck millions of children, Therese now has a better chance of a healthy life. Thanks to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) – spearheaded by Rotary International, national governments, the World Health Organization, UNICEF, CDC, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance –  she is one of more than 2.5 billion children who have received the oral polio vaccine, as the global polio caseload has been reduced by 99% since 1988.

But as I looked at Therese, I also wished that she would have a better chance not just for health, but also for opportunities to prosper. I thought of a recent WHO report I had read – Delivered by Women, Led by Men – which observed that women make up 70% of the global health workforce but hold only 25% of senior roles – a situation that is no different for the polio program. Would Therese’s future reflect that disparity?

Administering the polio vaccine to Therese © WHO/Chad

I found both frustration and hope in answer to my question when I listened to Ms. Léonie Ngaordoum, the woman responsible for the campaign which brought the vaccine to Therese.

Léonie is head of vaccine operations for Chad’s immunization programme. It is women like her who have brought us this far in the long fight against polio. It is women like her who have gone the extra mile to keep their countries safe when, in 2020, the polio programme faced unprecedented challenges in the face of a new pandemic- COVID-19.

Her journey to a senior public health position in Chad has been difficult. Driven to remote areas on dangerous roads to oversee vaccination campaigns, she has twice suffered accidents, one of which left her with severe spinal injuries. She has faced gender discrimination, countered vaccine misinformation, convinced vaccine sceptics, and stayed the course despite the severe strain of COVID-19, and struggling for respect and recognition in a male-dominated environment.

Today she has a clear vision to share: “I speak about vaccination as if it were a vocation…the program change needed to achieve polio eradication is to empower enough women.” Léonie’s experience highlights the necessity of increasing senior roles among women in the health workforce and involving them in policy decisions.

Women like her frequently operate in dangerous and conflict-affected areas, putting their own personal safety at risk – all in efforts to protect communities from deadly diseases.  Women have a greater level of trust with other women and thus are able to enter households and have interactions with mothers and children necessary to deliver the polio vaccine. And this way they can also provide other services, such as health education, antenatal care, routine immunization, and maternal health.

Ms. Léonie Ngaordoum (second from the right) is the head of vaccine operations for Chad’s immunization programme © WHO/Chad

The knowledge and skills gained by this workforce are already being deployed against COVID-19, in surveillance, contact tracing, and raising public awareness. Indeed, more than 50 percent of the time spent by GPEI health workers is already dedicated to diseases and threats beyond polio. It’s clear that the future of public health is inextricably linked to the status of women. Their heroic actions provide nothing less than a blueprint for the future of disease prevention. The Resolution on “Women, girls and the response to COVID-19”, adopted last year by the UN General Assembly, should play a key role when addressing these challenges and the specific needs of women and girls in conflict situations.

The centrality of women to the success of public health projects has for too long gone unrecognised, and must be formalized. That is why today, on International Women’s Day, we must pay tribute to the tremendous contribution of women like Léonie around the world in protecting their communities from deadly diseases such as polio.  But at the same time, thinking of the world in which Therese will come of age, we need to commit to empower every woman and girl. It will not only make for a more just world – but a healthier one too.

Heather meeting an all-women vaccinator team in Lao PDR. Over the last few years, she has played a crucial role encouraging members of the polio programme to “put on their gender glasses”. © Heather Monnet

Throughout her career as a Resource Mobilization Officer for WHO’s polio eradication programme, Heather Monnet has held onto her vision of a polio-free world. A respected communicator with a deep understanding of the polio programme, she was one of the first in the programme to realize that considering gender is crucial to defeat the poliovirus. Since 2017, she has successfully “led from behind”, supporting the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) to develop a gender strategy and workstream which has become a model for other United Nations programmes, and which is designed to overcome some of the most intractable challenges facing polio eradicators.

Describing her motivation, Heather describes “putting on her gender glasses”. She explains, “We had reached a point where it seemed like we had turned nearly every stone to eradicate polio, and yet we had not defeated the disease. At the same time, the introduction of the sustainable development goals had led to an increasing awareness of gender. I began to think more about how gender affects health and health-seeking behaviors.”

“I was not, and am still not a gender expert, but as Member States began to speak more about this issue, it was increasingly on my radar. Putting on my “gender glasses”, I realized that gender was an unexplored intersection for polio eradication, and it could be transformative for our work.”

The case for considering gender

Heather holding a Rotary EndPolio bear, sold by UK Rotarians to raise money for polio eradication. © Heather Monnet

In polio eradication, areas where gender intersects with health delivery include exploring whether boys and girls are equally as likely to receive the polio vaccine, and if gender norms impact whether mothers are able to take their children to health centres for routine immunization.

In some places, such as in Nigeria, women are often more effective at delivering the polio vaccine than men, as it is more culturally acceptable for them to interact with mothers and enter homes to vaccinate the smallest children. The GPEI Gender Technical Brief showed how the presence of female health workers in Pakistan has been associated with substantial increases in tetanus vaccine coverage, attended births, and full immunization coverage of children.

To explore and respond to the gender dynamics of polio eradication, the GPEI has published a comprehensive gender equality strategy. A dedicated gender analyst works in the polio programme at WHO headquarters, and gender focal points have been appointed at regional levels and in some country offices. Data is now routinely disaggregated by sex, and there has been a concerted effort to use gender analyses to inform programme policy. The team are currently engaged in implementing the GPEI gender strategy as well as supporting efforts to mainstream gender across WHO, including through a dedicated gender data working group.

Advocating for consideration of gender within the programme has not always been easy. Heather explains, “The polio programme is huge and so many people are involved. Encouraging people to put on their ‘gender glasses’ even for five minutes can be a challenge. But what is really encouraging is that once we educate people about how gender impacts their work, they often have an “aha” moment.”

“The next and crucial steps are striving to ensure that the gender strategy is implemented. This requires all those involved in polio to be engaged – whether it’s designing a gender-inclusive microplan, collecting sex-disaggregated data during a campaign, or considering how gender impacts the way we pay vaccinators. As we integrate gender into our work, we also need to identify the building blocks to ensure that this workstream is sustainably mainstreamed. This is not dependent on one person – rather it takes everyone having exposure.”

Polio Gender Champions

The GPEI gender workstream is supported by Polio Gender Champions, who work to raise the voices of those engaged in the programme. Champions include Senator Hon Marise Payne, Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Women, Wendy Morton, Minister of European Neighbourhood and the Americas at the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office in the United Kingdom, and Arancha González Laya, who is the Spanish Minister for Foreign Affairs, European Union and Cooperation.

Heather explains that the vision and leadership of the gender champions is crucial for achieving change. “The gender champions amplify the voices of those who don’t have a megaphone on the global stage and whose voices need to be heard. For instance, female frontline workers have a lot to say, but their voices aren’t always listened to. Our gender champions raise up these voices from the field.”

The GPEI Gender Strategy outlines key intersections between gender and polio eradication and sets out a framework for mainstreaming gender into the programme. © WHO Afghanistan/Roya Haidari

“This feeds into our attempts to improve the way that health is delivered. We know that most healthcare is delivered by women, but the systems to deliver it are designed by men. Practical steps to support women employed by the programme may include ensuring that polio vaccination training materials can be understood by individuals with lower literacy, and ensuring that there are safe, private bathrooms available for women to use during long campaign days. When we plan routes to deliver vaccines from house to house, we should consider that women might prefer to take a different route which gives them a greater feeling of personal security. Women may not feel comfortable speaking about these issues to a male supervisor, so we must also ensure that enough female supervisors are recruited and trained. Gender champions are key to keeping these issues high on the global agenda.”

Over the last few years, the GPEI’s gender work has been recognized in multiple high-level forums, and is leading the way for other programmes. Heather identifies two moments when she felt particularly proud – when the Polio Oversight Board adopted and endorsed the GPEI gender strategy, and at a high-level meeting hosted by the Government of the United Arab Emirates in advance of the Reaching the Last Mile Forum in November 2019, during which the Canadian representative described GPEI’s gender strategy as one of the strongest in global health and noted that it should stand as an example for others.

Heather explains, “I have been inspired by what we have achieved – we have planted the seeds and the soil is now being nourished. Our work on gender is growing into something amazing – and the world is watching what it will become.”

PN:  President Knaack, thank you for taking the time to speak to us.  A little more than a year into the global COVID-19 pandemic, what is your take on the current situation, also with a view of the global effort to eradicate polio?

Holger Knaack, 2020-2021 Rotary International president. © Rotary International

HK:  There are many interesting lessons we learned over the past 12 months.  The first is the value of strong health systems, which perhaps in countries like mine – Germany – we have over the past decades taken for granted. But we have seen how important strong health systems are to a functional society, and how fragile that society is if those systems are at risk of collapse.  In terms of PolioPlus, of course, the reality is that it is precisely children who live in areas with poor health systems who are most at risk of contracting diseases such as polio.  So everything must be done to strengthen health systems systematically, everywhere, to help prevent any disease.

The second lesson is the value of scientific knowledge.  COVID-19 is of course a new pathogen affecting the world, and there remain many unanswered questions.  How does it really transmit?  Who and where are the primary transmittors?  How significant and widespread are asymptomatic (meaning undetected) infections and what role do they play in the pandemic?  And most importantly, how best to protect our populations, with a minimum impact on everyday life?  These are precisely the same questions that were posed about polio in the 1950s.  People felt the same fear back then about polio, as we do now about COVID.  Polio would indiscriminately hit communities, seemingly without rhyme or reason. Parents would send their children to school in the morning, and they would be stricken by polio later that same day.  Lack of knowledge is what is so terrifying about the COVID-19 pandemic.  It also means we are to a large degree unable to really target strategies in the most effective way.  What polio has shown us is the true value of scientific knowledge.  We know how polio transmits, where it is circulating, who is most at risk, and most importantly, we have the tools and the knowledge to protect our populations.  This knowledge enables us to target our eradication strategies in the most effective manner, and the result is that the disease has been beaten back over the past few decades to just two endemic countries worldwide.  Most recently,  Africa was certified as free of all wild polioviruses, a tremendous achievement which could not have been possible without scientific knowledge guiding us.  So while we grapple for answers with COVID, for polio eradication, we must now focus entirely on operational implementation. If we optimize implementation, success will follow.

And the third lesson is perhaps the most important:  we cannot indefinitely sustain the effort to eradicate polio.  We have been on the ‘final stretch’ for several years now.  Tantalizingly close to global eradication, but still falling one percent short.  In 2020, we saw tremendous disruptions to our operations due to COVID-19.  We never know when the next COVID-19 will  come along, to again disrupt everything.  Last year, the polio program came away with a very serious black eye, so to speak.  But we have the opportunity to come back stronger.  We must now capitalize on it.  We know what we need to do to finish polio.  We must now finish the job.  We must all recommit and redouble our efforts.  If we do that, we will give the world one less infectious disease to worry about once and for all.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, members of the Rotary Club of Boa Vista-Cacari (D4720) deliver bleach to a shelter for Venezuelan refugees in Boa Vista, Roraima, Brazil. © Rotary International

PN:  You recently called on the Rotary network worldwide to use its experiences from PolioPlus in supporting the COVID-19 response.  Could you elaborate on that?

HK:  We have a global network of more than 1.2 million volunteers worldwide.  This network has been consistently and systematically utilized to help engage everyone from heads of state to mothers in the most remote areas of rural India for polio eradication.  We have helped secure vaccine supply and distribution, and increased trust in vaccines among communities.  In the process, we have learned many lessons on what it takes to address a public health threat and these same lessons now should be applied to the COVID-19 response, especially as vaccines are now starting to be rolled out.  That is why I thought it was important to call on our membership network to use their experiences and apply it to the COVID-19 response.

PN:  What has been the reaction so far?

HK:  Overwhelmingly supportive, I would say.  As an example, in Germany, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria and other countries in Europe, Rotarians are encouraging active participation of the provided vaccination service.  And because COVID vaccination is provided free of charge, vaccinated individuals are encouraged to instead donate the cost of what this vaccine would have cost them – approximately US$25 – to PolioPlus.  This has a dual benefit:  they are protected from COVID and contributing to the global response, and they are ensuring children are also protected against polio, critically important now as the COVID-pandemic has significantly disrupted health services and an estimated more than 80 million children worldwide are at increased risk of diseases such as polio.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, members of Rotary and Rotaract clubs in D3281 (Bangladesh) package and distribute 10,000 bottles of hand sanitizer to underserved people in the cities of Dhaka, Dinajpur, Khulna, Rajshahi, and Rangpur in Bagladesh. © Rotary International

PN:  And from what we understand, the Rotary PolioPlus network of National PolioPlus Committees has in any event been supporting global pandemic response over the past 12 months already, is that correct?

HK:  The ‘Plus’ in PolioPlus has always stood for the fact that we are eradicating polio, but doing it in such a way that we are in fact doing much more, by supporting broader public health efforts.  I’m extremely proud that Rotary and Rotarians around the world have helped bring the world to the threshold of being wild polio-free.  But I’m perhaps even more proud of the ‘plus’ – or ‘added’ value – that this network has provided in the process.  Things that are largely unseen, but which are very evident and concrete.  So indeed, Rotarians have been actively engaged in the pandemic response, particularly in high-risk areas such as Pakistan, and Nigeria.  We have supported contact tracing, educated communities on hygiene and distancing measures, supporting testing and other tactics.  We have a unique set of experiences, and more importantly a unique infrastructure and network, to help during such crises.  It’s morally the only way to operate.  And actually, it is operationally beneficial also to polio eradication, as we are engaging with communities on broader terms, and not just on polio.

PN:  Thank you again for taking the time to speak with us.  Do you have any final thoughts or reflections for our readers?

HK:  If we did not know it before, we certainly know now how quickly and dangerously infectious diseases spread around the globe.  Polio is no different, and we know that it will not stay confined to Pakistan and Afghanistan if we don’t stop transmission there as soon as possible.  We know that given the chance, this disease will come roaring back, and within ten years, we would again see 200,000 children paralysed every single year, all over the world.  Perhaps even in my country, Germany.  That would be a humanitarian catastrophe that must be averted at all costs.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, members of Rotary clubs in D9212 in Kenya established an emergency support team to distribute water stations to communities and informal settlements across the country for sanitary handwashing and other needs. © Rotary International

The good news is that it can be averted.  We know what it takes.  Pakistan and Afghanistan are re-launching their national eradication efforts in an intensified, emergency manner, following a disrupted 2020.  This is encouraging to see.  Mirroring this engagement must be the strengthened commitments by the international development community.  We must ensure that the financial resources are urgently mobilised to finish polio once and for all.  I am particularly proud that my own government, Germany, for example, has just recently committed an additional 35 million EURO to the effort, along with an additional 10 million EURO for efforts in Nigeria and Pakistan.  Such support is particularly critical now, given that more than 80 million children are at heightened risk of diseases such a polio due to COVID-19 disruptions, and late last year, UNICEF and WHO issued an emergency call for action to urgently address this.  And as we have seen, by supporting polio eradication, donors effectively get twice as much for their contribution:  they help contribute to polio eradication, but also by doing so help contribute to the polio network’s support to public health emergencies such as COVID-19.

In short, we have it in our own hands to achieve success.  There are no technical or biological reasons why polio should persist anywhere in the world.  It is now a question of political and societal will.  If we all redouble our efforts, success will follow.

Please consider making a contribution to Rotary’s PolioPlus fund, and have your donation matched 2-to-1 by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

148th session of the WHO Executive Board in Geneva, Switzerland. ©WHO / Christopher Black

Meeting virtually at this week’s WHO Executive Board (EB), global health leaders and ministers of health urged for concerted and emergency efforts to finally rid the world of polio, noting a global and collective responsibility to finish the disease once and for all. Delegates also reiterated their support for the sustainable transitioning of polio assets, recognizing that successful polio transition and polio eradication are twin goals.

Noting that endemic wild poliovirus is now restricted to just two countries – the lowest number in history – with the African region being certified as wild polio-free in August 2020, delegates urged intensified efforts to wipe out the remaining chains of transmission of this strain and prevent global resurgence. The representatives of both Pakistan and Afghanistan demonstrated strong commitments to this goal and urged collective responsibility to achieve success. Delegates also expressed strong appreciation for the establishment of the Eastern Mediterranean Ministerial Regional Subcommittee on Polio Eradication and Outbreaks, by WHO Regional Director Dr Ahmed Al-Mandhari, which focuses on critical barriers to overcome to achieve zero poliovirus.

The EB urged all stakeholders to follow WHO and UNICEF’s joint emergency call to action, launched 6 November 2020, including by prioritising polio in national budgets as they rebuild their immunization programmes in the wake of COVID-19, and urgently mobilising additional resources for polio emergency outbreak response. To address the increasing global health emergency associated with circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus (cVDPV) outbreaks, delegates expressed appreciation of new strategic approaches, including the roll-out of novel oral polio vaccine type 2 (nOPV2), a next-generation OPV aimed at more effectively and sustainably addressing these outbreaks. This vaccine, which was recently granted a WHO Emergency Use Listing recommendation, is anticipated to be initially rolled-out in the first quarter of 2021. The GPEI is working with countries affected and at high risk of cVDPV2 to prepare for possible use of the vaccine.

Amid the new COVID-19 reality, the EB also expressed deep appreciation for the GPEI’s ongoing support to COVID-19 response. In December 2020, the heads of the GPEI core partners at their final Polio Oversight Board (POB) meeting of the year, confirmed that the polio infrastructure will continue to provide such support, including to the COVID-19 vaccine roll-out.

Member States additionally reiterated their support of polio transition, emphasising the need to ensure sustained, robust public health programming. Several EB members urged for strengthening the links built between the polio, immunization and emergencies programmes during COVID-19 response in the next phase of the pandemic, including for the effective rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Children waiting at a polio vaccination campaign in Al-Mualla district, Yemen. ©WHO/EMRO

Director-General of WHO, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, commented, “We share the understanding that polio eradication and transition are equally important targets: as we work towards eradication we must think about the future. This is how we will ensure that health systems retain capacity and are strengthened long after polio is ended.”

WHO’s Deputy Director-General, Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, noted the increasing cross-programmatic integration between polio and other public health programmes, including the introduction of integrated public health teams in countries prioritized for polio transition, bringing together polio, emergencies and immunization expertise. The Regional Director for the African Region, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, emphasised that the work of polio personnel to support the pandemic response, “highlight[s]… the importance of working in interconnected ways going forward.” Dr Al-Mandhari, addressing the delegates, said: “Polio continues to be a public health emergency of international concern. Now is the time to be shoring up the polio programme and mobilizing funding, including domestic funds, so that this remarkable public health and pandemic response mechanism can remain robust and can be integrated into broader public health services across the region. Now is the time for full regional solidarity and mobilization.”

Speaking on behalf of children worldwide, Rotary International – the civil society arm of the GPEI partnership – thanked global health leaders for their continued dedication to polio eradication and public health, sentiments echoed by several other partners, including the United Nations Foundation (UNF). UNF expressed concern about the drop in population immunity, especially for polio and measles, declared support for the joint emergency call to action to prioritize investments for preventing and responding to polio and measles outbreaks, and urged continued focus on strengthening immunization programmes. 

The EB discussion will also help inform the finalization of the new strategic plan. This strengthened strategic plan – being developed in broad consultation with partners, stakeholders and countries – is based on best practices and lessons learned, and focuses on fully implementing approaches proven to work. It is expected to be presented to the World Health Assembly in May.

“If we did not know it before, we certainly know now how quickly infectious diseases can spread across the world and wild polio is one such infectious disease.  Unlike with COVID-19, where many medical and scientific questions remain unanswered, we know precisely what it takes to stop polio,” said Aidan O’Leary, newly-appointed Director of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative at WHO. “We know how polio transmits, who is primarily at risk and we have all the tools and approaches needed to stop it. That is what this strengthened strategic plan is all about – to bring all the solutions together into a single roadmap to achieve success and through focusing on more effective implementation. What discussions at the EB this week clearly displayed is a strong global sense of commitment and solidarity to do just that: better implementation of what we know works.  Together, if we do that, success will follow and we will be able to give the world one less infectious disease to worry about, once and for all.”

Speaking more broadly on global public health issues, the EB welcomed confirmation by the United States of its intention to remain a member of WHO. In a statement by the United States, the country underscored WHO’s critical role in the world’s fight against COVID-19 and countless other threats to global health and health security, confirming it would continue to be a full participant and global leader in confronting such threats and advancing global health and health security.