Lessons Learned from the Fight to End Polio
World Polio Day is a day to take stock of our remarkable progress and to rededicate ourselves to the eradication of polio.
The history of the polio eradication effort is an incredible story, marked with unexpected setbacks, as well as amazing stories of overall progress. I am sure if Drs. Albert Sabin and Jonas Salk, the scientists who discovered the first polio vaccines, were alive today, they would agree the world is as close to being on the brink of eradication as ever. We are experiencing the lowest numbers of cases in history. In less than 30 years, polio cases have been reduced by 99.9 percent. The number of polio-affected countries has been reduced from 125 to three.
In the process, the polio eradication effort has taught the global health community many important lessons. We have learned the critical value of maintaining political will on local and national levels. We have learned when such will wanes, the disease makes a roaring comeback. We have learned the importance of reliable funding sources to the longevity of eradication efforts. We have learned that when funds are restricted, that strategies get compromised, and the virus takes advantage of these weaknesses.
We have also learned that trained health workers are essential to achieving high immunization coverage in a community. Vaccines on their own don’t save lives; the dedicated health workers vaccinating communities save lives. When any one of these factors is missing, progress is slowed – and sometimes reversed. As the polio eradication initiative has grown, we have come to expect the unexpected. Our experiences have shown us that silent areas not reporting disease, especially areas submerged in conflict and strife, are the very areas polio may be hiding to make a dramatic comeback.
This summer, we learned the troubling news that two children were paralyzed by wild poliovirus in Nigeria, which the WHO had declared polio-free more than two years prior. These cases were reported in the country’s remote and conflict-prone northern state region, where surveillance systems and political will had collapsed due to the area’s isolation and volatility. The good news, however, is that we know what we must do to regain this lost ground. Once the accessibility and political stability issues are addressed, health workers are trained and ready to implement the best practices necessary to increase immunization rates and eliminate polio in Nigeria once more.
This year on World Polio Day, we honor the remarkable work being done all over the world to end this terrible disease. But as the recent events in Nigeria highlight, we must also recognize that there is much more work to be done before we are finished. We must rededicate ourselves to reaching the children in Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan who have yet to receive polio vaccines. We must continue to look for hidden pockets of possible polio transmission in other parts of the world. We must be vigilant in maintaining the polio-free status of every other country around the world. The success of our efforts will not only prevent the crippling effects of this disease, but save lives, and create the systems necessary to confront any infectious disease threat.
All countries – polio-free or not – remain at risk until polio is fully eradicated. We have seen successes and setbacks, but our commitment is stronger than ever. We are getting ever closer to achieving the historic milestone of eradicating this crippling disease once and for all. We must not let up now.
Dr. Jon Andrus joined the Sabin Vaccine Institute in October 2014 where he serves as Executive Vice President and Director of the Vaccine Advocacy and Education program. Dr. Andrus also is a co-chair of the Global Polio Partners Working Group, which serves as the stakeholder voice in the development and implementation of short-term and long-term polio eradication strategic plans and emergency action plans. In 2000, Dr. Andrus received the Distinguished Service Medal, the highest award of the United States Public Health Service, for his leadership in working to eradicate polio in Southeast Asia. He has received numerous other awards for his leadership in the eradication of polio, measles, rubella, and congenital rubella syndrome, as well as the introduction of new vaccines in developing countries.