World Polio Day cheers major achievements toward global polio eradication

2019 proves that challenges remain

Despite these accomplishments, polio cases are rising in areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan that face tremendous challenges: They are difficult to get to and travel in, they are often not secure enough for vaccinators to do their work, and people are highly mobile. In all of 2018, these two countries reported just 33 wild poliovirus cases. The 2019 case count is so far 88, and health experts predict more cases to come.

Michel Zaffran, director of polio eradication at WHO, discussed the increased number of cases in Afghanistan and Pakistan. “At its core, polio eradication is very simple: If you vaccinate enough children in given areas, then the virus has nowhere to hide and eventually disappears,” Zaffran said.

It gets more complicated, he said, when thousands of children are not being vaccinated in some areas. “The reasons vary greatly, district to district, in both countries,” he added. “It could be because there is hampered access due to insecurity, lack of infrastructure, lack of clean water supply, inadequate planning of campaigns, community resistance, and other reasons.”

To combat any further spread of the disease, Zaffran says health workers are evaluating each area to understand why a child is missed and making customized plans to overcome the area’s specific challenges.

This approach is similar to how health experts overcame the last hurdles in India, which was declared polio-free in 2014.

“I encourage Rotary members everywhere to stick with it and stay optimistic,” Zaffran said. “Keep raising funds and awareness, advocate with governments. We truly are on the cusp of eradicating a disease for only the second time in human history.”

If it is eradicated, polio would follow smallpox as the second human disease eliminated from the world.

Rotary has contributed more than $2 billion to polio eradication since it launched the PolioPlus program in 1985, and is committed to raising $50 million a year for polio eradication activities. Because of a 2-to-1 matching agreement with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, that means that $150 million a year goes toward fulfilling Rotary’s promise to the children of the world: no child will ever again suffer the devastating effects of polio.