Unsung heroes on World Polio Day
“We need to focus on leaving no child unvaccinated, no matter how difficult it is to reach them,” says Mohammed Mohammedi, polio eradicator for twenty years.
World Polio Day, 24 October, is an opportunity to recognize the work of committed WHO staff members like Mohammedi, along with the more than 20 000 other unsung heroes working to eradicate polio around the world.
Polio is a virus that can cause incurable paralysis. But it presents the global community with a unique opportunity: to eradicate a human disease for just the second time in history, after smallpox.
Virus in fewer places than ever
In 1988 when WHO became part of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, polio paralysed 10 children for life every 15 minutes, in nearly every country in the world. Each case was entirely preventable. In 2017, so far, 12 cases of polio have been reported in just two countries. In the intervening years, the polio eradication infrastructure has been at the heart of efforts to increase equitable access to health services for every last child, even in the most remote or marginalized areas.
Today, only three endemic countries remain, which have never stopped polio – Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan. Even within these countries, the virus is cornered into fewer districts than ever before, with just 15 districts infected since last World Polio Day, compared to 29 between October 2015 and 2016.
“Within these vulnerable districts, more children than ever are being vaccinated,” says Michel Zaffran, WHO Director, Polio Eradication. “These are hopeful signs that we are closer to reaching our goal, but there is more to be done.”
Committed health workers accelerate progress
Eradicating polio is hard and complicated. It requires committed, hardworking frontline healthcare workers to deliver doses of the oral polio vaccine to every single child, multiple times, so that they develop full immunity.
It relies on community leaders, parents, medical personnel, traditional healers and surveillance officers to search for symptoms of polio – most often a floppy arm or leg – and to make sure that the child is tested for the poliovirus.
These two tactics – reaching every last child and finding every last virus – are the pillars to success, giving the virus no place to hide. Once no children remain under-immunized, the virus will die out – and the world will be free of polio.
WHO staff keep eyes peeled for virus
WHO staff play an important role in polio eradication from district to global levels. Surveillance Officers keep their eyes peeled for the virus in over 70 countries.
One of these is Somalia, a polio-free country still alert to the threat of the virus. Poverty, internal displacement, conflict, and weak health systems mean that vaccination levels are low. If the virus were to return from an endemic country, immunity would not be high enough to stop another outbreak.
Thinking outside the box to overcome challenges, WHO Surveillance Officers in Somalia have trained a network of more than 500 parents, students, and community leaders to identify every case of acute flaccid paralysis so that if polio returns, it will be found – and stopped – immediately.
“Success in polio eradication depends on the close and strong collaboration between all partners including national and local governments, public and private health providers, civil society, religious institutions, and most importantly community members themselves,” said Dr Eltayeb Elfakki, manager of polio eradication efforts for WHO Somalia.
To end polio, WHO works alongside Rotary International, UNICEF, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Rotary International had the vision of a polio-free world nearly three decades ago, and millions of Rotarians have committed over US$ 1.6 billion to the effort to date.
Through these efforts, more than 16 million people are walking today who would otherwise have been paralysed for life. More than 400 million children are vaccinated every year. In 2016, nearly 220 000 stool samples were tested for polio in WHO-accredited laboratories.
Polio workers respond to other health needs
Polio eradication paves the way to meet a plethora of other health needs. Since last year, polio workers have contributed to fighting cholera in Nigeria, responded to Meningitis outbreaks, strengthened routine immunization, and brought other broader benefits to communities.
“Until polio is eradicated everywhere, every country remains vulnerable,” says Zaffran. “To build a world where future generations are free of polio, much work remains, all of it needing continued political and financial support: we must find every last virus and vaccinate every last child.”