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

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

Luis Fermín, the boy who was the last person to suffer poliomyelitis in the Region of the Americas. © PAHO/WHO.

Before polio vaccines existed, polio affected thousands of children around the world every year. Not so long ago it was common for a healthy child to suddenly be unable to walk, and those who were fortunate enough to recover from the disease were left with lifelong sequelae. Those less fortunate spent their days in hospital wards hooked up to huge machines — known as steel lungs — that allowed them to keep breathing. Many others lost their lives. Polio was endemic in all countries, and when there was an outbreak, communities had to close schools and other public spaces to protect the children.

Discovery of the polio vaccine in the mid-1950s changed the world forever. Once vaccinations began, the disease quickly started to wane. It was clear that vaccines worked, and that they could be used to prevent the disease. After several countries succeeded in controlling polio, leaders decided that eliminating polio permanently was possible, but only if it was done in a coordinated way in all countries of the Region. And so, in 1985, all the Region’s countries committed to eradicating polio. In 1988, the rest of the world joined this massive effort.

The political commitment to end the disease was furthered by the work of vaccinators, who travelled to the farthest reaches of the continent, by land, sea, and air, so that no one would be left unvaccinated. Along with these efforts, on-site personnel worked to investigate all probable cases, one by one; laboratory staff worked to confirm the absence of cases; and numerous other health workers helped in combating the disease, so that no one would ever again suffer from polio. Participating in this great effort were community leaders, politicians at all levels, partnerships with international organizations, and parents who were convinced that vaccination saves lives.

In 1991, in a show of Pan-Americanism and commitment to health, the countries of the Americas conquered polio, and the Americas became the first world region to eliminate the disease.

It is not enough, however, to have eliminated the disease in the Region, because as long as there are cases somewhere in the world, all children remain at risk. Keeping the Region polio-free for 30 years has been a titanic effort, one requiring that all children be vaccinated against the disease, while at the same time maintaining sensitive surveillance systems, an increasingly challenging task given the range of other health priorities.

Today we are closer than ever to eradicating polio worldwide. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly affected health services around the world, including routine vaccination and epidemiological surveillance of vaccine-preventable diseases, putting at risk the progress achieved.

Health workers around the world must commit to completing the eradication process. Today more than ever, we must learn from past experiences and, with renewed determination, look to the future to fulfill the promise of a world permanently free of polio

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.

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.

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.

Henrietta Lacks, in an undated photo, sought treatment for what turned out to be aggressive cervical cancer from Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951. © The Lacks family

Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1951,  at the age of 31. Doctors in Baltimore, USA took a small sample of her tissue during the treatment to remove her tumour, without her knowledge – a not uncommon way to treat minorities at that time. Up to that point, attempts to grow human cells outside the body had failed. However, Lacks’ cells were different: they were able to divide and replicate indefinitely. These cells became the source of the HeLa cell line –  one of the most important cell lines in medical research – and contributed to developing the first polio vaccine. While the world has benefited greatly from Henrietta Lacks’ cells, the unethical use of her cells raised concerns about longstanding medical racism towards marginalized or minority communities – and has contributed to the movement towards more people- and community-centred care.

Margaret C. Snyder in 2016 at the exhibition “HERstory: A Celebration of Leading Women in the United Nations” at U.N. headquarters in Manhattan. Dr. Snyder created and ran a series of programs that brought training, loans and equipment to women around the world. © Megan Snyder

Margaret C. Snyder is often called the UN’s First Feminist. Her pioneering career refocused the mechanisms of global development aid to include women. As she wrote last year: “There was a failure to realize that the most serious problems of development defy solution without the involvement of women.” When she began working at the UN, in the early 1970s, most women did secretarial work. Under her influence, that began to change. By 2021, women make up a significant portion of UN professional staff, and applying a gender lens to the UN’s work has become essential.  This thinking was foundational to the systematic adoption of gender-based planning that has underpinned polio eradication. Margaret C. Snyder died earlier this year at the age of 91.

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.

O’Leary took over as Director for Polio Eradication at WHO on 1 January 2021, from Michel Zaffran, who will enter a well-deserved retirement end-February. O’Leary brings with him a vast array of experience in both polio eradication and emergencies, including through the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

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

PN:  Aidan, Michel, thank you both for taking the time to speak with us today. Aidan – you are taking over from Michel as Director for Polio Eradication at WHO. Polio is 99% eradicated globally, but it has been at 99% for many years. Ultimately, your job will be to achieve that elusive 100%. Do you find the task ahead daunting?

A-O’L:  I’m not sure ‘daunting’ is the adjective I would use. But ‘challenging’ for sure. As you say, we have been at 99% for many years now. We have reduced the incidence of polio from 350,000 children paralysed every year in 1988, to less than 1,000 in 2020. But that is not enough, not if we are trying to eradicate a disease. Polio is a highly-infectious disease, and if we did not know it before COVID-19, we certainly know now how quickly infectious diseases can spread globally.  If we do not eradicate polio, this virus will resurge globally.

PN:  As new Director, what will be your priorities?

A-O’L:  My priority, and all of our priorities, must be simply this: find and vaccinate every last child. If we do that, poliovirus will have nowhere to hide. That means in the first instance finding out where those last remaining unreached children are, and what obstacles stand in the way to vaccinating them. Is it because of lack of infrastructure? Insecurity or inaccessibility?  Lack of proper operational planning? Population movements? Resistance? Gender-related barriers? If we can identify the underlying reasons, we can adapt our operations and really zero in on those last remaining virus strains.

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

 PN:  Michel, you have led this effort for the past five years, and during that time have guided the effort to restrict wild poliovirus transmission to just Pakistan and Afghanistan. You have overseen the achievement of a wild polio-free Africa, an incredible achievement. However, this time has also seen an increase in emergence of circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus, or cVDPV, outbreaks.  How do you see the priorities going forward?

MZ:  The goal of this effort is of course to ensure that no child will ever again be paralysed by any poliovirus, be it wild or vaccine-derived.  This we have to achieve in phases.  First, we have to interrupt all remaining wild poliovirus strains, before we can then ultimately stop use of oral polio vaccine, or OPV for short, in order to eliminate the long-term risks of cVDPVs. Aidan has tremendous experience, in both remaining wild poliovirus endemic countries, having led the OCHA office in Afghanistan and having been Chief of Polio Eradication in Pakistan for UNICEF. So he knows the challenges and realities involved. Eradicating the last remaining strains of wild poliovirus must be the overriding priority – success ultimately hinges on that.

At the same time, we have new strategies, tools and approaches to address the increasing cVDPV emergency, notably the novel OPV type 2, or nOPV2 for short, to more effectively and sustainably stop such strains. Ultimately, though, we need to reach children. Only vaccinations save lives, not vaccines.

A-O’L:  Michel just mentioned an important word: emergency. And that is precisely what we are facing with polio, whether it’s wild or vaccine-derived. I believe my experience working in emergency settings can help us achieve our goal, including by linking polio operations more closely to other emergency efforts. That is also one of the reasons why WHO and UNICEF recently jointly issued an emergency call for action on polio and measles, and we hope all stakeholders will respond accordingly.

MZ:  I would echo that. Particularly in a post-COVID world, the programme must also continue to adapt its approaches and operations, and no longer work so much in isolation. We have to integrate with other efforts including emergency response and broader routine immunization efforts.

©WHO/Katerina Alves

A-O’L:  I would just add that Michel is really leaving me with a solid base to operate from. He and his teams across the GPEI partnership have built up such a strong infrastructure. I’m thinking here for example of the gender equality work of the programme – it has really been trail-blazing and I know other health and development efforts are looking to our experience on this. It’s a great opportunity to further leverage and expand collaboration with others. So we’ve really become a global leader in many new ways of working, and ultimately, that can only mean more support for this effort.

PN:  Thank you so much for speaking with us today.  Could we ask for final thoughts from both of you?

A-O’L:  We have many challenges, but if any network can achieve success, it is the GPEI network. Our greatest strength that we have is partnerships. Starting with Rotary International and Rotarians worldwide who are tirelessly working towards success, to our other partners including at my old organization UNICEF and our newest partner Gavi who is helping to integrate the programme, and of course ultimately to donor and country governments and communities: this is where our strength and power lies. If we harness this partnership effectively, if we all work together, then we will reach that last remaining child, and we will ensure that this disease is eradicated once and for all.

MZ:  For me it has been an absolute honour and privilege to lead this effort for the past years, and I leave with a sense of real optimism. I believe Aidan is the right person for this job right now. In November, at the World Health Assembly, we saw tremendous support for polio eradication from Member States. We have new tools, such as nOPV2, and tremendous new commitments. We are working on a new strategy, to lead us to success. But ultimately, all comes down now to implementation. 2020, the COVID year, taught us many lessons. Many of the questions that are still being asked about COVID – how does it transmit, where is it primarily circulating, what are the best tools and strategies to stop it – have been answered for polio. We know what the virus is doing, how it is behaving, and who it is affecting. Most importantly, we know what we have to do to stop it, and we have all the tools to stop it. But what 2020 also taught us is that this cannot last forever. We never know when a next COVID emergency comes along, which will disrupt everything.  In polio eradication, we are being given another chance in 2021, after a bruising 2020. We have to capitalize on it. We have to focus everything on implementation. If we do that, success will follow.

Aidan O’Leary (left) during a field visit.

Mr Aidan O’Leary has been officially appointed as the new Director for Polio Eradication at the World Health Organization, with effect from 1 January 2021.  O’Leary is taking over from Michel Zaffran, who will enter retirement end-February.

O’Leary brings with him a wealth of emergencies and public health experience.  Originally from Ireland, he is currently Head of Office in Yemen for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), in addition to having extensive experience in emergency settings such as Iraq and Syria, where he also served as Head of Office for OCHA.

O’Leary also has strong experience of working on polio eradication in the remaining wild poliovirus endemic countries.  He was Chief of Polio Eradication in Pakistan for UNICEF from 2015-2017 and Head of Office for OCHA in Afghanistan from 2011-2014.

Aidan O’Leary

“I’m excited to join this incredible programme,” commented O’Leary on his appointment. “COVID-19 led to a tough year for polio eradication in 2020, but we have adapted our strategies and I believe this programme has a real opportunity to reboost our efforts in 2021. I’ve been so impressed by how this programme has taken on challenges and continues to innovate, and all of it rooted in its strong partnership. I look forward to working with all partners, including my old organization UNICEF, and of course Rotarians from around the world.”

“With this appointment, I am able to enter my retirement with a sense of reassurance,” said Michel Zaffran.  “He is the right person for the job at this time, given his set of experiences both in the polio programme and emergencies, and in particular in Pakistan and Afghanistan.  I am confident his leadership will help drive this programme to ultimate success.”

O’Leary joins the GPEI in 2021, and will focus on capitalizing on new commitments displayed at the World Health Assembly in November, the introduction of new tools and innovations such as novel oral polio vaccine type 2 (nOPV2), and an optimization of new governance and strategy structures currently being developed across the partnership.

The GPEI welcomes Aidan O’Leary to the GPEI family.

The Executive Board Room at WHO Headquarters during the first ever virtually-held World Health Assembly. © WHO/C. Black

In a year marked by the global COVID-19 pandemic, global health leaders convening virtually at this week’s World Health Assembly called for continued urgent action on polio eradication. The Assembly congratulated the African region on reaching the public health milestone of certification as wild polio free, but highlighted the importance of global solidarity to achieve the goal of global eradication and certification.

Member States, including from polio-affected and high-risk countries, underscored the damage COVID-19 has caused to immunization systems around the world, leaving children at much more risk of preventable diseases such as polio.  Delegates urged all stakeholders to follow WHO and UNICEF’s joint call for emergency action launched on 6 November to prioritise polio in national budgets as they rebuild their immunization systems in the wake of COVID-19, and the need to urgently mobilise an additional US$ 400 million for polio for emergency outbreak response over the next 14 months.  In particular, Turkey and Vietnam have already responded to the call, mobilising additional resources and commitments to the effort.

The Assembly expressed appreciation at the GPEI’s ongoing and strategic efforts to maintain the programme amidst the ‘new reality’, in particular the support the polio infrastructure provides to COVID-19-response efforts. Many interventions underscored the critical role that polio staff and assets play in public health globally and underline the urgency of integrating these assets into the wider public health infrastructure.

At the same time, the GPEI’s work on gender was recognized, with thanks to the Foreign Ministers of Australia, Spain and the UK for their roles as Gender Champions for polio eradication.

Delegates expressed concern at the increase in circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus (cVDPV) outbreaks, and urged rapid roll-out of novel oral polio vaccine type 2 (nOPV2), a next-generation oral polio vaccine aimed at more effectively and sustainably addressing these outbreaks.  This vaccine is anticipated to be initially rolled-out by January 2021.

Speaking on behalf of children worldwide, Rotary International – the civil society arm of the GPEI partnership – thanked the global health leaders for their continued dedication to polio eradication and public health, and appealed for intensified global action to address immunization coverage gaps, by prioritizing investment in robust immunization systems to prevent deadly and debilitating diseases such as polio and measles.

Related resources

Meet Sue

Whether in Pakistan, Seattle or Somalia, Dr Sue Gerber, a Senior Program Officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), is working with partner organizations to support polio workers – those delivering vaccines, educating the public or conducting disease surveillance.

Dr Sue Gerber (Senior Program Officer, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation)

“The more time you can spend getting your shoes dusty walking and working together in the field, the better you will understand the challenges,” she says.

On one trip to Borno State in Nigeria, Gerber spent a week with community vaccinators – all well-respected women who, despite the massive geographic region they had to cover, maintained good spirits throughout their long travels. Across her work, Gerber finds motivation by staying closely engaged with the needs of those on the frontlines of the polio eradication effort.

Starting Out

While she studied to be an epidemiologist in college, one of Gerber’s first global health experiences was in the Peace Corps in Liberia, working with an immunization programme combatting childhood communicable diseases. Here, Gerber coordinated with Rotary International to secure meal funding for health workers travelling long distances to vaccinate children, foreshadowing collaboration integral to the GPEI. While in the Peace Corps, she found mentorship with legendary smallpox eradicator Stan Foster, who not only helped inspire her to work on polio eradication but also pointed Gerber toward her next role at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Gerber began work at the CDC on sexually transmitted diseases, first in California, and then later in Botswana and other countries in Africa. While in Los Angeles, she relied on frontline workers to help inform counseling and testing sessions assisting women with STD testing access in low-income areas.

Gerber’s next move was to CDC’s Global Immunization Division (GID) to support polio eradication in East Africa and Nigeria. She returned to the U.S. to lead GID’s Africa team for diseases of eradication and elimination, later serving as Deputy Director of CDC’s Namibia country programme.

Committed to Polio

Working collaboratively to combat other infectious diseases around the globe paved the way for Gerber to dedicate her career to polio. First at the CDC and now at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Gerber’s role in polio eradication efforts has evolved, but her drive to support health workers at every turn has remained steadfast.

 “My responsibilities change over time depending on need and circumstance,” says Gerber. Currently, she supports polio eradication in Pakistan, by working with the national Emergency Operation Center (EOC) to improve supplemental vaccination campaigns and routine immunization services, and support integration with other primary health care services.

Dr Sue Gerber (center) with community vaccinators in Borno State, Nigeria, [2005] ©Sue Gerber

Gerber also supports efforts in Somalia, partnering with a variety of international organizations to work directly with in-country teams strengthening surveillance. As a member of the global surveillance task team, she develops strategic plans, guidance, trainings and assessments, incorporating frontline worker input on best practices for accessing hard-to-reach and insecure areas.

Innovating During a Pandemic

The resilience of frontline workers in the face of crisis continues to be the backbone of combatting diseases. This is especially true for today’s polio programme amidst the current global pandemic. While COVID-19 temporarily interrupted immunization delivery, Gerber remains optimistic about global health progress, adding that “during this pandemic, technology use has helped create innovative solutions to key problems.”

During the pandemic, polio programme assets have been instrumental in supporting COVID-19 response efforts. In almost every country with GPEI infrastructure and resources, polio staff have lent their expertise to conducting COVID-19 surveillance, combatting misinformation and sharing coordination mechanisms for pandemic response alongside programmatic activities.

The Role of Women

“Women have always been a critically important part of the programme, especially at the frontline,” says Gerber.

Across polio-affected countries, female vaccinators are crucial to building community trust and reaching all children, especially in communities where cultural norms prevent men from entering households. Despite this outsized importance to the programme, women are still heavily underrepresented in authority and management positions.

Dr Sue Gerber along with Drs Borus and Ogange meet with health workers at a border post during an outbreak investigation near the border of South Sudan and Kenya, [2009] ©Sue Gerber

Ensuring that more women are at the table making decisions is a key part of Gerber’s drive. “Effective leaders lead from who they are,” Gerber says. By fostering strong working relationships, mentoring younger women and taking the time to listen to frontline workers, stakeholders and leaders, Gerber is able to channel her strengths and perspective as a woman into her role in eradicating polio.

Gerber adds, “I also think that representation matters. When women see women taking on a leadership role, they feel confident to lead and contribute in their own way.” In her own experience, seeing women mobilizing global resources, devising strategies or sparking catalytic action has provided an incredible source of inspiration.

What’s Next

Gerber is proud to be involved in eradicating polio – from working in the field to supporting new policies and approaches to bringing much-needed perspectives to the table – all while ensuring that “frontline workers are knowledgeable, prepared and protected.” Gerber is also working with Johns Hopkins University and their consortium partners on an academic course disseminating lessons learned from polio eradication efforts.

Her advice for the next generation of public health workers wanting to follow in her footsteps? “If you’re thinking about going into public or community health, please know you can make a difference.

Dr. Tunji Funsho

Dr. Tunji Funsho, chair of Rotary’s Nigeria National PolioPlus Committee, joins 100 pioneers, artists, leaders, icons, and titans as one of TIME’s 100 Most Influential People. TIME announced its 2020 honorees during a 22 September television broadcast on ABC, recognizing Funsho for his instrumental leadership and work with Rotary members and partners to achieve the eradication of wild polio in the African region.

He is the first Rotary member to receive this honor for work toward eradicating polio.

A Rotarian for 35 years, Funsho is a member of the Rotary Club of Lekki, Nigeria, past governor of District 9110, and serves on Rotary’s International PolioPlus Committee. Funsho is a cardiologist and a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of London. He lives in Lagos, Nigeria with his wife Aisha. They have four children; Habeeb, Kike, Abdullahi and Fatima; and five grandchildren.

TIME 100 comprises individuals whose leadership, talent, discoveries, and philanthropy have made a difference in the world. Past honorees include Bono, the Dalai Lama, Bill Gates, Nelson Mandela, Angela Merkel, Oprah Winfrey, and Malala Yousafzai.

Read more.

GENEVA, 25 August 2020 – Today, the Africa Regional Certification Commission certified the WHO African Region as wild polio-free after four years without a case. With this historic milestone, five of the six WHO regions – representing over 90% of the world’s population – are now free of the wild poliovirus, moving the world closer to achieving global polio eradication.

Only two countries worldwide continue to see wild poliovirus transmission: Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) congratulates the national governments of the 47 countries in the WHO African Region for today’s achievement.

“Ending wild polio virus in Africa is one of the greatest public health achievements of our time and provides powerful inspiration for all of us to finish the job of eradicating polio globally,” said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “I thank and congratulate the governments, health workers, community volunteers, traditional and religious leaders and parents across the region who have worked together to kick wild polio out of Africa.”

Strong leadership and innovation were instrumental in stopping the wild poliovirus in the region. Countries successfully coordinated their efforts to overcome major challenges to immunizing children, such as high levels of population movement, conflict and insecurity restricting access to health services, and the virus’s ability to spread quickly and travel across borders.

In addition, the continued generosity and shared commitment of donors – including governments, the private sector, multilateral institutions and philanthropic organizations – to achieving a polio-free world helped build the infrastructure that enabled the African region to reach more children than ever before with polio vaccines and defeat wild polio.

“During a challenging year for global health, the certification of the African region as wild poliovirus-free is a sign of hope and progress that shows what can be accomplished through collaboration and perseverance,” said Rotary International President Holger Knaack. “Since 1996, when Nelson Mandela joined with Rotary, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, and governments of the African region we’ve achieved something remarkable. Today’s milestone tells us that polio eradication is possible, as long as the world remains committed to finishing the job. Let us work together to harness our collective energies to overcome the remaining challenges and fulfil our promise of a polio-free world.”

The resources and expertise used to eliminate wild polio have significantly contributed to Africa’s public health and outbreak response systems. The polio programme provides far-reaching health benefits to local communities, from supporting the African region’s response to COVID-19 to bolstering routine immunization against other vaccine-preventable diseases.

While this is a remarkable milestone, we must not become complacent. Continued commitment to strengthening immunization and health systems in the African region is essential to protect progress against wild polio and to tackle the spread of type 2 circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus (cVDPV2), which is present in 16 countries in the region. Pockets of low immunity mean such strains continue to pose a threat and the risk is magnified by interruptions in vaccination due to COVID-19, which have left communities more vulnerable to cVDPV2 outbreaks.

The GPEI calls on countries and donors to remain vigilant against all forms of polio. Until every strain is eradicated worldwide, the incredible progress made against polio globally will be at risk.

The WHO African Region’s success against wild polio has shown the world that progress against some of the biggest global health challenges is possible. The GPEI is grateful for every person, partner, donor and country who helped bring about this incredible achievement.

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.

For information and multimedia content on the WHO African Region’s efforts to eradicate wild polio, please visit africakicksoutwildpolio.com.

Click on the image for information and multimedia content.

 

In every corner of the world, women leaders in Rotary are leading the charge to make polio history. They are fundraisers, volunteers, polio survivors and advocates from all backgrounds and walks of life with one thing in common: working to ensure that no child ever has to suffer the devastating and paralyzing effects of polio. Meet five women in Rotary whose work is leading the way in the fight to end this disease.

Judith Diment

Diment, of the Rotary Club of Maidenhead Thames, England, leads Rotary’s UK advocacy efforts, and is a passionate fundraiser and International PolioPlus Committee member.

She recently spearheaded Rotary’s efforts to create polio eradication champions among UK political leaders, resulting in the country committing up to an additional $US514.8 million to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) to fund the 2019-2023 Endgame Strategy.

In 2019, former UK Prime Minister Theresa May and Queen Elizabeth II both publicly recognized Diment for her philanthropy to polio eradication and other causes.  Hear more from Diment.

Ijeoma Pearl Okoro

“Until the last child is reached and immunized, no child in the world is free. Let us all support the cause to end polio now.”

Ijeoma Pearl Okoro is a member of the Rotary Club of Port Harcourt, Nigeria where she directs End Polio Now activities throughout sub-Saharan Africa. She leads efforts to build awareness around the fight to eliminate polio from Nigeria and engages other Rotary members and the public through events and promotional endeavors.

Through a range of activities like government advocacy, celebrity engagement and fundraising, Okoro’s leadership helps ensure that polio eradication is a priority and every child is protected from the disease.

In 2019, Nigeria surpassed three years without a case of the wild poliovirus, and the African Region is expected to be certified as wild polio-free in late August 2020.

Tayyaba Gul

A member of the Rotary Club of Islamabad (Metropolitan), Pakistan, Gul runs a Rotary-funded health center in Nowshera, working with teams of female vaccinators help reach neighborhoods of ethnic Afghan refugees displaced by conflict in tribal border regions. Gul’s teams use cellphones for daily data reporting on immunization progress, which helps health teams analyze data and report back in real time.

As one of only two countries that continues to report cases of the wild poliovirus, fighting polio in Pakistan is key in achieving a polio-free world. “I just contribute my part as a Rotarian. I’m happy to work in remote areas, especially with women, motivating them to play their role in society,” Gul says. Watch to learn more about Gul’s work in Pakistan.

Ann Lee Hussey

Ann Lee Hussey has led Rotary volunteers on nearly 30 trips to places like Pakistan and Nigeria to immunize children against polio, the disease that has affected her since she was 17 months old.

A member of the Portland Sunrise Rotary Club, Maine, USA, she is an outspoken advocate for polio eradication and immunization and has testified at state legislative hearings in Maine on the importance of vaccination.

In January 2019, Hussey spoke of her experience as a polio survivor and her Rotary service at Rotary’s International Assembly, highlighting the role of frontline polio workers: “Without question, the many health workers around the world—most of whom are women—are the unsung heroes on the polio front. Without them, we would not be where we are today.”

Marie-Irène Richmond-Ahoua

Richmond-Ahoua joined the Rotary Club of Abidjan-Biétry, Côte d’Ivoire, in 1991, making her one of the first female Rotarians in Africa.

When a general canceled a national immunization day during a 1999 coup in her country, Richmond-Ahoua appealed directly to the general’s family, pleading that innocent children had nothing to do with the war. Shortly afterward, the general granted her request and presided over the opening of the rescheduled immunization day.

Richmond-Ahoua coordinates national polio immunizations and serves on the Africa Regional PolioPlus Committee. She also spoke at Rotary’s 2018 World Bank International Women’s Day event.

Related resources

During March, polio social mobilisers provided routine immunization referral services to over 37,000 children. ©UNICEF Afghanistan

In March 2020, polio social mobilisers from the UNICEF-run Immunization Communication Network (ICN) provided routine immunization referral services to over 37,000 children in southern and eastern Afghanistan.

The polio programme’s routine immunization efforts in Afghanistan have made important gains, especially in the country’s east, in the areas bordering Pakistan. Polio social mobilisers support mother and child health referral services, and help families keep track of their children’s health records. As the mobilisers are recruited from their community, they know the families in their neighborhood and can trace each child’s planned immunization schedule from birth.

It is critical that routine immunization continues throughout the pandemic to protect children from life-threatening diseases including polio. Polio mobilisers have found their work is even more valued during the COVID-19 response.

Masoud, a polio mobiliser, says ‘’I used to announce the immunization sessions through the Mosque but not all the targeted children were brought to the health facility. Now through the ICN support to routine immunization, the number of missed children has reduced due to tracking of every child in the community and coordinating with the health facility.”

“This is critical during the ongoing pandemic, as families are not sure if they can leave their homes to take their children to the health facility for immunization. The polio mobilisers are their guide in the community.’’

Tahira and daughter Dua attend a routine immunization session in Punjab province, Pakistan in January 2018. It is critical that immunization delivery systems are sustained through the COVID-19 pandemic. ©WHO Pakistan/Asad Zaidi

This month, world leaders have joined together to make several important commitments to strengthening public health infrastructure during the COVID-19 response – investments that will go a long way in protecting the most vulnerable communities, including those affected by polio.

On 4 May 2020, heads of government, institutions and industry pledged USD $7.4 billion (of the USD $8 billion goal) to ensure equitable access to new tools for COVID-19 globally. The funding will support the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator, which will help develop new global health technology solutions to test, treat and protect people, and prevent the disease from spreading.

A day later, several donors pledged new funding to Gavi, one of the partners of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), ahead of its upcoming replenishment in June 2020. This funding will not only help vaccinate hundreds of millions of children against diseases such as polio, but also ensure that immunization delivery systems are sustained through the pandemic.

The GPEI greatly appreciates outstanding donor community support for both the COVID-19 response effort and routine immunization programmes around the world.

The GPEI is continuing to do its part to support the COVID-19 pandemic, in solidarity with other health initiatives. In March, the Polio Oversight Board made the recommendation to pause polio vaccination campaigns to limit further spread of the disease. Countries extended their key polio eradication assets, like infrastructure and human resources, to support countries’ COVID-19 response efforts, while continuing essential activities. As of May, GPEI resources, including surveillance laboratories, and social mobilization and communication networks, are supporting COVID-19 response in at least 55 countries.

The pause of vaccination campaigns and the disruption of routine immunization services leaves millions of children at high risk of contracting polio, measles and other vaccine preventable diseases (VPDs). The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that vaccines, against both COVID-19 and VPDs, are crucial to protecting individuals, communities and economies.

As countries continue to implement their COVID-19 response plans, WHO and UNICEF are working with emergency and immunization partners to ensure the polio infrastructure not only supports the response, but also is fully funded in alignment with the ongoing efforts to finance COVID-19. While work is ongoing to cost those requirements, the GPEI hopes that specific COVID funds will be able to contribute towards its response efforts.

It is critical that essential health services and systems, including polio eradication efforts, have necessary support during both the response and recovery phases of this pandemic. While the GPEI has extended its assets to the global COVID-19 response effort, sustaining these programmatic resources is imperative. Continued donor commitments will enable the safe and effective resumption of polio vaccination campaigns as the situation evolves.

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Aziz Memon vaccinates a child during a vaccination campaign in Pakistan. ©Rotary International
Aziz Memon vaccinates a child during a vaccination campaign in Pakistan. ©Rotary International

“Tears were rolling down her cheeks. She was a true embodiment of pain and fatigue. She had huddled to her chest an eleven-year-old boy whose thin legs were hanging down, hampering her while she walked. I was stunned by the scene and stopped. I was curious to ask the woman what had happened to the child she was carrying. The poor woman wiped her tears to reply to me and revealed that out of her six children, three were suffering polio paralysis.”

Aziz Memon is narrating his first encounter with a child suffering from polio. The experience proved lifechanging. Over 22 years, he has risen to become one of the most influential philanthropists working to end polio in Pakistan.

22 years, 200,000 vaccine carriers, and millions raised to end polio

Aziz Memon is a good person to speak to if you want to get an insight into Rotary’s work in Pakistan. Chair of the Pakistan National PolioPlus Committee, Aziz is also a member of the International PolioPlus Committee. He has won multiple awards for his work to defeat the virus, and in October was announced as the first incoming Rotary Foundation Trustee to be appointed from Pakistan.

Aziz is most proud of his national committee’s work. He explains, “The committee has funded over 200,000 vaccine carriers for the entire EPI programme in Pakistan.”

“We have also supported vaccination at borders through permanent transit points, improved routine immunization at Permanent Immunization Centers, and helped provide basic medical care through female health workers. We have improved quality of life for families through solar filtration plants to provide clean water and have educated illiterate communities through providing speaking books. Rotarians create advocacy in schools, colleges, with Ulemas [Islamic religious scholars] and in their communities.”

With the support of Aziz and others, Rotary International has contributed millions of dollars to eradicate polio in Pakistan through the Government, WHO and UNICEF.

Aziz has made a significant contribution to polio eradication efforts over the 22 years he has been working with the programme. ©Rotary International
Aziz has made a significant contribution to polio eradication efforts over the 22 years he has been working with the programme. ©Rotary International

A chance to make history

The global drive to root out polio has some way to go still, with the poliovirus remaining in Afghanistan and Pakistan. To break the impasse an intensive, innovative and persistent effort is required.

“Rotary International’s mission to eradicate polio globally is our top priority and Rotary has taken this mission forward and helped and supported governments in other polio endemic countries to eradicate this terrible disease. It will be a privilege to be part of history when polio is eradicated, the second disease to be wiped out after smallpox,” Aziz explains.

Aziz reiterates that vaccine hesitancy and misinformation are two of the remaining challenges in the fight against polio in Pakistan.

“Misinformation spread through social media creates fear of the polio vaccine. Some security concerns still persist in tribal areas and there is weak accountability in places.”

In response, Rotary is supporting innovative strategies to address the challenges related to vaccine hesitancy. Aziz says, “Hesitancies must be skillfully addressed. We are working with Ulemas and religious scholars in all four provinces to create a positive image. Social media is playing a very strong role in averting misconceptions.”

Rotary is also a critical support to polio survivors who cannot afford their medical expenses. Aziz explains, “Rotary funds WHO to support a rehabilitation programme for polio victims. The Rotary Club of Karachi also sponsors a community project called the Artificial Limb Center which provided prosthesis, caliphers, crutches and wheelchair for polio victims and amputees as well as those injured in accidents.”

Dreaming of a polio-free Pakistan

Polio eradication in Pakistan has been a long journey but Aziz is motivated to overcome the remaining challenges.

“I motivate my fellows by nominating them for the Polio Free Service awards; publicizing their projects and activities in the monthly PolioPlus newsletter and honoring their services during the annual District Conference.”

A polio-free country is a dream for Pakistan. Reflecting on his feelings when India ended polio, to the joy of Rotarians worldwide, Aziz says, “It was good to know that a country like India could eradicate polio. It gives us hope that Pakistan can do it too, and we will soon be polio free.”

“Rotary was there at the beginning of the global effort to eradicate polio. If we stop now, polio may bounce back. We’ve done too much: we’ve made too much progress to walk away before we finish.”

The polio eradication campaign needs your help to reach every child. Thanks to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, your contribution to Rotary will be tripled. Donate now.

 

Three-year-old Madsa is carried by her sister after receiving a polio vaccine during a door-to-door campaign in Maroua, Cameroon. ©Gates Archive/Dominique Catton
Three-year-old Madsa is carried by her sister after receiving a polio vaccine during a door-to-door campaign in Maroua, Cameroon. ©Gates Archive/Dominique Catton

ABU DHABI, 19 November 2019 – Today, global leaders convened at the Reaching the Last Mile (RLM) Forum in Abu Dhabi to affirm their commitment to eradicate polio and pledge US$2.6 billion as part of the first phase of the funding needed to implement the Global Polio Eradication Initiative’s Polio Endgame Strategy 2019-2023.

This pledging event comes on the heels of a major announcement last month that the world has eradicated two of the three wild poliovirus strains, leaving only wild poliovirus type 1 (WPV1) still in circulation. Additionally, Nigeria – the last country in Africa to have cases of wild polio – has not seen wild polio since 2016 and the entire WHO African region could be certified wild polio-free in 2020. Thanks to the dedicated efforts of health workers, governments, donors and partners, wild polio only circulates in two countries: Pakistan and Afghanistan.

“From supporting one of the world’s largest health workforces, to reaching every last child with vaccines, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative is not only moving us closer to a polio-free world, it’s also building essential health infrastructure to address a range of other health needs,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization and Chair of the Polio Oversight Board. “We are grateful for the generous pledges made today and thank governments, donors and partners for standing with us. In particular, I would like to thank His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi for hosting the GPEI pledging moment and for his long-term support for polio eradication.”

The commitments announced today come at a critical time for the polio eradication effort. Barriers to reaching every child – including inconsistent campaign quality, insecurity, conflict, massive mobile populations, and, in some instances, parental refusal to the vaccine – have led to ongoing transmission of the wild poliovirus in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Further, low immunity to the virus in parts of Africa and Asia where not all children are vaccinated has sparked outbreaks of a rare form of the virus. To surmount these obstacles and protect 450 million children from polio every year, governments and donors announced significant new financial commitments toward the $3.27 billion needed to support the Polio Endgame Strategy.

Pledges are from a diverse array of donors, including: US$160 million from the host of the pledging moment His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi; countries, including US$215.92 million from the United States, US$160 million from the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, US$105.05 million from Germany, US$84.17 million from the Federal Government of Nigeria, US$10.83 million from Norway, US$10.29 million from Australia, US$7.4 million from Japan, US$2.22 million from Luxembourg, US$1.34 million from New Zealand, US$116,000 from Spain, and US$10,000 from Liechtenstein; GPEI partners, including US$1.08 billion from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and US$150 million from Rotary International; philanthropic organizations, including US$50 million from Bloomberg Philanthropies, US$25 million from Dalio Philanthropies, US$15 million from the Tahir Foundation, US$6.4 million from the United Nations Foundation, US$2 million from Alwaleed Philanthropies, US$1 million from the Charina Endowment Fund, and US$1 million from Ningxia Yanbao Charity Foundation; and the private sector, including US$1 million from Ahmed Al Abdulla Group, US$1 million from Al Ansari Exchange, and US$340,000 from Kasta Technologies. Earlier this month, the United Kingdom announced it would contribute up to US$514.8 million to the GPEI.

“We are proud to host the GPEI pledging moment in Abu Dhabi and thank all the attendees for their continued commitment to the eradication of polio,” said Her Excellency Reem Al Hashimy, UAE Cabinet Member and Minister of State for International Cooperation. “Since launching in 2014, the Emirates Polio Campaign has delivered more than 430 million polio vaccines in some of the most remote areas of Pakistan.  We remain firm in our mission to reach every last child and believe together we can consign polio to the pages of history.”

In addition to overcoming barriers to reach every child, this funding will ensure the resources and infrastructure built by the GPEI can support other health needs today and in the future. Polio workers deliver Vitamin A supplements, provide other vaccines like those for measles and yellow fever, counsel new mothers on breastfeeding, and strengthen disease surveillance systems to anticipate and respond to outbreaks. As part of its commitment to advance gender equality and women’s empowerment, the GPEI is also working to ensure equal participation of women at all levels of the programme.

The future of polio eradication hinges on support and engagement at all levels of the programme – from individuals to communities to local and national governments to donors. If the strategies needed to reach and vaccinate children are fully implemented and funded, we are confident that we can deliver a world where no child lives in fear of polio.

Pledge values are expressed in US dollars. View the full list of donors and pledge amounts.

Media contacts:

Oliver Rosenbauer

Communications Officer, World Health Organization

Email: rosenbauero@who.int

Tel: +41 79 500 6536

John Butler

Vice President, Global Health Strategies

Email: jbutler@globalhealthstrategies.com

Tel: +44 7502 203498

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Reposted with permission from Rotary.org.

Women and children collect water from a borehole in the Madinatu settlement, where about 5000 displaced people live. © Rotary International
Women and children collect water from a borehole in the Madinatu settlement, where about 5000 displaced people live. © Rotary International

When we talk about PolioPlus, we know we are eradicating polio, but do we realize how many added benefits the programme brings? The ‘plus’ is something else that is provided as a part of the polio eradication campaign. It might be a hand-operated tricycle or access to water. It might be additional medical treatment, bed nets, or soap.

This series looks at the ‘pluses’ that Rotarians worldwide help to provide. Our first article looked at prevention of other diseases. In part two, we look at another lifechanging intervention: providing clean water for communities.

Providing clean water

Addressing a critical long-term need such as access to clean water helps build relationships and trust with community members. Within camps for displaced people in northern Nigeria, the polio vaccinators who regularly visit communities are sometimes met with frustration. “People say, ‘We don’t have water, and you’re giving us polio drops,’” Tunji Funsho explains. Rotary and its partners have responded by funding 31 solar-powered boreholes to provide clean water in northern Nigeria, and the effort is ongoing.

Supplying clean water to vulnerable communities is a priority of the PolioPlus programme not only in Nigeria, but also in Afghanistan and Pakistan — the only other remaining polio-endemic nations, where transmission of the virus has never been interrupted.

Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) and polio eradication efforts go together. © Rotary International
Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) and polio eradication efforts go together. © Rotary International

“Giving water is noble work also,” says Aziz Memon, chair of Rotary’s Pakistan PolioPlus Committee.

Access to safe drinking water is also an important aspect of the The Polio Endgame Strategy 2019-2023, which aims to “ensure populations reached for polio campaigns are also able to access much-needed basic services, such as clean water, sanitation, and nutrition.” The poliovirus spreads through human waste, so making sure people aren’t drinking or bathing in contaminated water is critical to eradicating the disease. Bunmi Lagunju, the PolioPlus project coordinator in Nigeria, says that installing the boreholes has helped prevent the spread of cholera and other diseases in the displaced persons camps.

Communities with a reliable source of clean water have a reduced rate of disease and a better quality of life. “When we came [to the camp], there was no borehole. We had to go to the nearby block factory to get water, and this was difficult because the factory only gave us limited amounts of water,” says Jumai Alhassan, as she gives her child a bucket-bath. “We are thankful for people who provided us with the water.”

By looking holistically at the needs of communities, Rotarians are ending polio, and making a significant contribution to overall health.

This story is part of the Broader Benefits of Polio Programme series on our website, which originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of The Rotarian magazine. Read part one.

 The polio eradication campaign needs your help to reach every child. Thanks to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, your contribution will be tripled. To donate, visit endpolio.org/donate.

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Seven-month-old Abdihakim Osman receives double doses of the oral polio vaccine during a national immunization campaign in Hargeisa, Somaliland. G20 members are some of the most committed supporters of polio eradication efforts. ©WHO/Ilyas Ahmed
Seven-month-old Abdihakim Osman receives double doses of the oral polio vaccine during a national immunization campaign in Hargeisa, Somaliland. G20 members are some of the most committed supporters of polio eradication efforts. ©WHO/Ilyas Ahmed

G20 Health Ministers met in Okayama, Japan, on 19 and 20 October 2019 to address major global health issues in order to pave the way towards a more inclusive and sustainable world, as envisioned in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Ministers put a strong emphasis on ending polio in the resulting declaration, reaffirming their “commitment to eradicate polio”, and recognizing the remaining challenges.

Ministers welcomed next month’s pledging event. With the support of G20 members and other important global donors, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative aims to successfully raise funds to overcome the remaining challenges that face the world as we work to end polio. The pledging event will be generously hosted by the UAE and His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, as part of the Reaching the Last Mile Forum on 19 November 2019, and intends to secure the financial commitments needed for the programme to finish the job.

Ministers noted, “We are concerned with the rising number of vaccine-derived polio outbreaks. We call for a strong cross-border cooperation and strict implementation of vaccine requirements for travelers as specified in the International Health Regulations (IHR, 2005).”

The polio programme is currently responding to vaccine-derived poliovirus outbreaks in 18 countries. The encouragements of the G20 Health Ministers regarding the pledging event, IHR implementation and cross-border collaboration are welcomed as part of measures to ensure high quality comprehensive outbreak response and the ability of the programme to eradicate the virus.

In addition, Ministers expressed support for “the efforts of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance (Gavi), WHO, UNICEF, and other stakeholders in strengthening routine and supplemental immunization,” and highlighted the “leadership role of WHO”. This year, Gavi has joined the Polio Oversight Board, becoming the sixth partner of the initiative. Ministers referred to the importance of “the transition of relevant polio assets” to other health programmes, a process that will be strengthened by Gavi’s partnership.

Polio eradication has an important role to play in the implementation of other global health goals. Considering this broader context, Ministers recognized that “high quality and safe primary health care including access to vaccination is a cornerstone for UHC”. Ministers noted, “We recognize that immunization is one of the most cost-effective health investments with proven strategies that make it accessible to all segments of the population with an emphasis on women and girls, the most hard-to-reach as well as the vulnerable and marginalized populations. We express our concern about vaccine hesitancy as mentioned in the WHO’s Ten threats to global health in 2019.”

Vaccination is the only way to eradicate polio and the GPEI is working tirelessly in some of the most challenging contexts to ensure all children, boys and girls, regardless of where they live, have access to life-saving vaccines.

This important statement from G20 Ministers of Health represents a continuation of the strong historical political support for polio eradication from both the G7 and the G20, at the highest levels.

The statement also follows the reaffirmation of support for polio eradication by G20 health leaders during their June 2019 summit. In this meeting, they discussed major challenges facing the world and once more communicated that “we reaffirm our commitment to eradicate polio”.

In 2020, Saudi Arabia will hold the presidency of the G20 and the US Government will hold the Presidency of the G7.

The Government of Japan, current host of the G20, is committed to the eradication of polio, providing US$ 563 million in grants to the GPEI since 1988.

Read the Okayama Declaration of the G20 Health Ministers.

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