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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is a hot afternoon in Chagai, a small community on the south bank of the River Gambia when the polio vaccination team arrives to a rapturous welcome. Children and women jump to their feet, some waving and swinging their hands as they pound their feet on the ground in near perfect sync with the beat of the drum.

This excitement is caused by one certain member of the vaccination team wearing a bush hat and playing the drums. Lamin Keita, 60, is a cultural musician supporting the vaccination team in raising awareness about polio and encouraging parents to vaccinate their children.  Lamin, popularly called Takatiti, because of one of his songs, is immediately surrounded by excited children, as he adjusts his beats to respond to the ecstasy and rigor of the dancers.

“When I arrive on the back of a pick-up truck with my megaphone and drums, children from the communities run after us in full excitement and jump up and down and ask me to play my drums,” Takatiti explains.

Whenever Takatiti enters a village with his drums, children and adults flock around him and jump and dance to his music, which gives him the opportunity to speak with community members about polio and the importance of vaccination in protecting children from the deadly disease. Photo: © UNICEF/UN0624019/ Lerneryd

This is what Takatiti is popular for – pulling crowds with his drums to communicate important messages like polio vaccination. For almost four decades, he has toured communities in the region, accompanying health workers as they seek to persuade parents and caregivers to vaccinate their children during mass vaccination campaigns like the polio campaign.

Local voices are the most powerful voices

Building trust in vaccines among parents and caregivers is the first critical step towards achieving high immunization coverage to stop the spread of polio. UNICEF, as a leading partner of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) for social and behaviour change, supports the government in strengthening engagements with communities, as the voices of local leaders and influencers like Takatiti play a powerful role in helping allay fears and concerns of parents and caregivers about vaccines.

“I have been making town announcements since the mid-1980s. I am aware of polio and its terrible consequences. Families hear myths and rumours and get concerned about vaccines. As they already know and trust me, I try my best to give them accurate information and clear their doubts, so that they can vaccinate their children against polio and other dangerous diseases,” Takatiti says.

“It’s important to deliver messages that are supported by facts in an effective way”

Days before the start of a polio vaccination campaign and during the campaign itself, Takatiti walks up and down the streets of villages, playing his drums and using his megaphone to talk to communities about the dangers of polio, how vaccination is the only way to protect children, and that polio vaccines are safe and free.

Awa plays with her baby, Abdoulay, after he was vaccinated during the a polio vaccination campaign in Jenoi, The Gambia, on 21 March 2022. Photo: © UNICEF/UN0623991/Lerneryd
Awa plays with her baby, Abdoulay, after he was vaccinated during the a polio vaccination campaign in Jenoi, The Gambia, on 21 March 2022. Photo: © UNICEF/UN0623991/Lerneryd

“I always try to promote peace and healthy life for all. It’s important to deliver messages that are supported by facts in an effective way. The Government and UNICEF provided me correct information and facts about polio and vaccines, so I am happy to volunteer for the campaign.”

A country mobilizes to stop polio

“If people trust health workers to cure other diseases, then it makes sense to trust the same health workers to protect our children from polio. Health workers even give the polio vaccine to their own children – so we should not doubt their good intentions. It is my job to let people know this truth, without offending them, and encourage them to vaccinate their kids,” Takatiti said.

In August 2021, The Gambia declared a national public health emergency in response to outbreaks of non-wild variants of polio in the country.

Sainabou, a healthcare worker, administers the polio vaccine to school children at New Town School during a vaccination campaign in Bakau, The Gambia, on 19 March 2022. Photo: © UNICEF/UN0624057/Lerneryd
Sainabou, a healthcare worker, administers the polio vaccine to school children at New Town School during a vaccination campaign in Bakau, The Gambia, on 19 March 2022. Photo: © UNICEF/UN0624057/Lerneryd

The Gambian government, with support from WHO, UNICEF, US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)and GPEI partners, quickly responded and started preparing for nationwide immunization campaigns – managing supply and safe storage of vaccines, strengthening surveillance and monitoring, training health workers and vaccinators, and engaging with local leaders and influencers to build trust in vaccines.

The country undertook its first national polio vaccination campaign in November 2021 and followed up with a second round in March 2022.

Thanks to thousands of health workers, vaccinators, and community influencers like Takatiti, the vaccination campaigns have reached over 380,000 children aged five years and below in The Gambia.

GENEVA, 26 April 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Additional quotes from the GPEI Investment Case:

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

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

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

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Media contacts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cairo, 10 February 2022 – The fourth meeting of the Regional Subcommittee on Polio Eradication and Outbreaks was convened on Wednesday 9 February, by WHO’s Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean Dr Ahmed Al-Mandhari. The meeting was attended by health ministers or their representatives from Djibouti, Egypt, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

The Subcommittee declared the ongoing circulation of any strain of poliovirus in the Region to be a regional public health emergency and called on all authorities to enable uninterrupted access to the youngest and most vulnerable children through the resumption of house-to-house vaccination campaigns. It issued statements on wild poliovirus circulation in Afghanistan and Pakistan and on the circulation of vaccine-derived poliovirus strains in Yemen, where limits on house-to-house vaccination are preventing access to the most vulnerable children.

The spread of polio in the Eastern Mediterranean Region is a pressing emergency and it remains a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) under the International Health Regulations (IHR 2005).

Members noted a sharp decrease in cases of wild poliovirus in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2021 but warned against complacency.

“Wild poliovirus transmission is at a historic low in the endemic countries of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The progress is remarkable, but it is fragile. The opportunity to end polio is knocking at our door, and we must seize it,” said Dr Al-Mandhari.

Speaking to the progress made in the last year, the Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Health, Dr Faisal Sultan, assured members that the programme in Pakistan was leaving no stone unturned in the pursuit of zero polio transmission.

“We have intensified efforts in the hardest districts and core reservoirs and we are closely monitoring transmission across the border in coordination with Afghanistan, taking measures to respond to outbreaks if they occur and making every effort to ensure that the virus doesn’t spill over in either direction. To boost the confidence of marginalized communities, we are also providing essential services and vaccination of other antigens and diseases,” he said.

Outbreaks of circulating vaccine-derived polioviruses type 1 (cVDPV1) and type 2 (cVDPV2) continued to emerge and spread in the Region in 2021. As of February 2022, Afghanistan, Djibouti, Egypt, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen are responding to transmission of vaccine-derived polioviruses.

“The increasing outbreaks of circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus type 2 in the Eastern Mediterranean Region and neighbouring countries of Africa are deeply concerning and must be stopped rapidly. To do so, we need to ensure that we are creating an enabling environment for health workers to reach children with those two drops of polio vaccine,” said newly nominated co-chair H.E. Dr Hanan Mohamed Al Kuwari, Minister of Public Health of Qatar.

During the meeting, Djibouti’s Public Health Minister, Dr Ahmed Robleh Abdilleh, shared plans for vaccination campaigns and increased surveillance in response to the transmission of cVDPV2, recently detected through the newly launched environmental sampling programme.

Reflecting on the work of the Subcommittee, co-chair and Minister of Health and Prevention of the United Arab Emirates H.E. Abdul Rahman Mohammed Al Owais urged members to sustain the commitment seen in in 2021.

“We have together advocated for an increase in domestic funds, we have driven collaborative public health action in our own countries, and collectively pushed for a regional response to address the regional public health emergency of the poliovirus. But these things alone will not end transmission,” he said.

Dr Al-Mandhari expressed appreciation for Egypt’s role as the first country in the Region to roll out a nationwide vaccination campaign using the novel poliovirus vaccine, and Chris Elias, Chair of the Polio Oversight Board, praised the remarkable progress made in polio eradication in Pakistan with support of the United Arab Emirate’s Pakistan Assistance Programme.

“This regional solidarity and commitment we have seen, through this Subcommittee, is something I am proud of. It is this commitment to the end goal that will help push us over the last mile,” said Dr Hamid Jafari, director of the regional polio programme and co-facilitator of the Regional Subcommittee.

Dr Pascal Mkanda, Director for the Polio Eradication Programme in the World Health Organization’s Regional Office for Africa (AFRO), also famously known as our ‘villager in polio’, is this month (February 2022) entering a well-deserved retirement.  Pascal’s contribution over the years to polio eradication in Africa, and indeed broader immunization, is second to none.

Under Pascal’s stewardship and leadership, wild polioviruses were successfully eradicated from the continent, the polio infrastructure integrated into broader public health efforts, new technologies and innovations for reaching the most marginalized children established and new vaccines successfully rolled-out.  His expertise, knowledge, dedication, zeal, and passion to work and more importantly his mentorship to fellow colleagues and health workers to alleviate the lives of vulnerable children across the continent, will be sorely missed.

Pascal Mkanda proudly displaying the official certificate of the independent certification of wild poliovirus eradication in Africa. © WHO

“I have worked with Pascal for close to 7 years, and during that time, I have witnessed first-hand Pascal’s dedication, and what he often refers to as ‘tough’ decision making, which we owe to the successes we have seen in the polio program” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa.” My first interaction with Pascal was during the first meeting for Program Managers in the region, in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2016. During this meeting Pascal expressed very passionately that the only way we can get results in Polio is by holding everyone accountable. To use his words, global health, very much like soccer, requires a coach to put his best players on the field.  Throughout the continent, children are healthier and better protected from infectious diseases, most notably of course from polio, thanks to the tremendous efforts and tireless work of Pascal.  This continent owes a huge debt of gratitude to Dr. Mkanda. On behalf of all mothers of Africa, I can simply only say one thing:  Thank you, Pascal!”

“Rotary and Rotary members across Africa have been at the forefront in the fight against polio since President Nelson Mandela shouted his rallying call in 1996 to ‘Kick Polio Out of Africa’,” according to Dr Tunji Funsho, Chair of Rotary’s Nigeria National PolioPlus Committee and one of TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2020.  “We went from 75,000 children paralyzed each year, all over Africa in 1996, to Zero wild polio cases since 2016. An unparalleled public health achievement, which could not have happened without Pascal’s leadership, engagement, and expertise. On behalf of Rotary members across Africa, Pascal – thank you so much for everything that you have done.  We all wish you a more than well-deserved retirement.”

“I can only echo what others have already said,” commented Professor Rose Leke, Chair of the African Regional Certification Commission, which independently certified Africa as wild poliovirus free in 2020.  “It was my great honour, and together with my fellow Commission Members, to certify our continent free of all wild polioviruses.  Dr Mkanda and his team across the continent were absolutely instrumental in this. As Director of Polio in the Region, he exhibited great leadership. He and his team helped us verify the absence of wild poliovirus, even from the most inaccessible and remote areas of Africa.  They helped ensure that children everywhere, no matter where they lived, were reached with the life-saving polio vaccine.  Dr Mkanda demonstrated truly the best of Africa.  All I can say is a tremendous ‘thank you’ to him and his team. I wish him well in all his future endeavours.”

Young Pascal during Kamuzu Academy Parade Award Ceremony He was awarded a prize as the best Chemistry Student of his year. © Pascal Mkanda

Dr Mkanda’s career started from humble beginnings in a small and remote village, Chintheche in northern Malawi, with virtually no infrastructure. Pascal, son of a stay-home mother and a primary school teacher in Nkhata Bay, started making ‘tough decisions’ very early in life. At a tender age of 13, he and his elder brother Justin left their home on foot, and walked 18 miles with no shoes, to look for what would eventually be their family’s home in search of a better education for him and his siblings.

This was only the beginning of the ‘tough decision making’ that Dr Mkanda is well-known for today. The young Pascal Mkanda continued with his education and was eventually identified as his district’s best performing student. At the time, the president of Malawi, His excellency Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda, had initiated a programme offering the brightest pupils (top 2.5%) from each district in Malawi irrespective of  sex or socio-economic status, the opportunity to attend higher education, at the prestigious Kamuzu Academy, and through this educational opportunity, Dr Mkanda performed exceptionally and was awarded a full sponsorship to study Medicine in the United Kingdom where he attained a medical degree at the Imperial University College London.

To just show how intelligent he was – Pascal was afforded an opportunity to also study for a degree in microbiology/infectious diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine while at the same time pursuing a degree in medicine. In later life he went to the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University in Atlanta, USA, and obtained a Master of Public Health.

Putting his theoretical knowledge into practical experience, it was not long before Dr Mkanda began making a very real impact on Malawi’s public health system, improving the health and lives of remote communities.  He rapidly developed a reputation for solid, practical and effective work. Here he developed the traits that would characterize his entire career and for which he became so respected:  the courage of standing up for his convictions; an ability to identify and promote new and excellent talent, that would help him establish relevant and pragmatic support teams across the region; a fearless dedication to step out of group thinking even if it meant standing alone against adversity; and, an absolute and unwavering commitment to achieving results.

Pascal and colleagues preparing to travel to Borno State, Nigeria for supportive supervision activities. © Pascal Mkanda

Respected by peers and more importantly communities themselves, he rapidly caught the attention of the international development community while working in some of the most remote communities in Malawi. During a visit by the USAID Mission in Malawi to Nsanje District Hospital in the south of Malawi, Dr Mkanda’s work caught the attention of the Country Representative who immediately recommended him for a USAID-sponsored Global Health Programme which subsequently led to the beginning of his international career.

Starting out as a National Programme Officer in Malawi for the World Health Organization, and moving on to Zambia as an international staff, he met and established a long-term friendship with Dr Francis Kasolo (former VPD Regional Virologist). By the year 2000, Dr Mkanda was managing immunization activities for Eastern and Central Africa and would eventually lead polio activities in Nigeria and Ethiopia.

It was during his time as WHO Polio team leader in Nigeria and Ethiopia that these countries were able to make significant inroads in interrupting wild polio transmission. One contributing factor for this achievement was the introduction of the famous accountability framework that held every staff accountable for their work with those underperforming being replaced by “fresh legs on the football field”, in Pascal’s own words.

It was therefore not a surprise that when the position of WHO African regional polio coordinator was advertised, that Dr Moeti – then the new Regional Director for Africa – appointed Pascal to lead the fight against this disease in the Region.

Never losing focus on the need to reach every last child with polio vaccines, with support from Dr Moeti and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Dr Mkanda established a regional center for the Geographic and Information Systems (GIS). According to Dr Joseph Cabore, Director of Programme Management at WHO’s African Regional Office: “One very critical contribution by Pascal to the regional office, is the introduction of innovative technologies and solutions. It’s amazing to see in real time, where our frontline workers can reach during mass campaigns and outreach activities. Pascal, thank you for ensuring that we remain accountable to our African children and their families.”

A tribute to health workers: Pascal Mkanda next to a statue of a heroic health worker vaccinating a child against polio. © Pascal Mkanda

“It has been a privilege to work alongside Dr. Mkanda in pursuit of a polio-free world,” said Dr. Chris Elias, President of Global Development, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “His commitment and dedication to eradicating polio have been vital to helping protect millions of children from this debilitating disease and helped achieve a WHO African Region that is now free of wild polio – a monumental achievement in global health. I am forever grateful to Dr. Mkanda for his work and partnership on ending polio.”

Michael Galway, Deputy Director Polio at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, added this personal comment: “Working with Pascal over the past decade has been one of best parts of the job in helping to get rid of polio in Africa. I’ve always appreciated the passion and conviction he’s brought to the work, and his keen understanding of how to get the polio programme to perform at its best in some of the most difficult places. He’s been a role-model and a friend, and I’m grateful for both!”

It was in Nigeria – for a long time the global epicentre for polio – that Pascal’s leadership really came into its own.

Dr Faisal Shuaib, Executive Director of the National Primary Healthcare Development Agency in Nigeria, said: “Pascal Mkanda’s contribution to making Nigeria free of wild poliovirus cannot be overstated.  It took innovative strategies and approaches to ensure that every child could be reached, and virus transmission effectively tracked, in hard-to-reach and inaccessible areas. Pascal helped develop and trailblaze novel approaches which ultimately led to our success.  It really took rewriting the strategic rulebook, and these approaches are now being implemented in other high-risk polio areas.  All for the benefit of the most marginalized children.  Thank you, Pascal, we could not have done it without you and your leadership.  We will miss you!”

Indeed, it is this same leadership by Dr Mkanda that led to the establishment of the Rapid Response Team (RRT), coordinated by Dr Ndoutabe Modjirom in the WHO Regional Office in Brazzaville to tackle the remaining form of polio, the circulating vaccine-derived polioviruses (cVDPVs): “Pascal, you are leaving big shoes to fill. We will need your kind of leadership to end all remaining forms of polio in our region once and for all. It will not be easy to finish this job without you.”

Pascal will be missed, as underscored by Aidan O’Leary, Director for the Global Polio Eradication at WHO Geneva. “On behalf of all partners and stakeholders, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative wishes you all the very best in your retirement and/or in your next chapter of life.  We know of course that you will stay engaged in one capacity or another in this fight, and we look forwards to one day, very soon, to celebrate together with you the victory over all forms/types of polio worldwide once and for all.  A big thank you, in particular for your leadership in certifying the Region free of wild polioviruses and for facilitating the introduction and roll-out of novel oral polio vaccine type 2.”

Congratulations on your retirement! Now you’ll have more time for sleeping in, fishing, reading, golfing and if you want to be a DJ-from G22, where it all started!

Shine on, le Mystique Dr Mkanda!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.