In Covid-19 world, Rotary President Knaack takes stock of global polio situation
In a special interview, PolioNews (PN) talks to Holger Knaack (HK), President of Rotary International.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.