Achieving the extraordinary: A world without polio

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Polio

A volunteer working in a village near Abidjan, Côte d’ Ivoire, gives a polio vaccine to children during a National Immunisation Day. [Rotary Library]

It would be naïve to feel safe from the threat polio virus poses to children everywhere. Critical action is needed by European leaders now to protect the world from this threat and realise the promise of global eradication, writes Geeta Rao Gupta, John Hewko and Bruce Aylward.

Geeta Rao Gupta is Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF; John Hewko is General Secretary of Rotary International; Bruce Aylward is Assistant Director-General – Polio and Emergencies of the World Health Organisation (WHO).

This year marks the sixteenth anniversary of the last reported case of polio in the European Region: a reminder of how far we have come in the fight against polio, and an opportunity to reignite international efforts in support of the very few countries that still have a distance to go.

Polio is a thing of the past across Europe, and indeed across most of the world now, thanks to the power of vaccination. Polio cases have fallen from 1,000 per day worldwide when the Global Polio Eradication Initiative was launched in 1988 to less than one per day so far in 2014. Yet, despite this success, it would be naïve to feel safe from the threat this virus poses to children everywhere. Critical action is needed by European leaders now to protect the world from this threat and realise the promise of global eradication.

Polio is a highly contagious disease which can spread across borders swiftly and silently, leaving in its wake legions of children maimed for life. Last year, in addition to the three countries where polio transmission has never halted (Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan), there were also outbreaks in the Middle East, the Horn of Africa and Central Africa due to reinfection of areas that had long been polio free. This serves as a stark reminder that as long as polio continues to exist anywhere, it remains a threat everywhere.

Europe is no exception. Despite being declared polio-free in 2002, there are still dangerous vaccination coverage gaps in a number of countries, meaning the disease could make a come-back on this continent as well. In fact, if the global effort to eradicate polio slips, the disease will come roaring back all over the world. Within ten years, we could once again see more than 200,000 newly paralysed children – every single year. This could be a catastrophe that must be avoided at all costs.

Recognising this, on 5 May 2014, the director-general of the WHO declared the international spread of polio a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). This is now driving countries affected by the disease to redouble their efforts to eradicate polio within their borders. An increasing number of polio-free countries – such as Australia, China and India – are also taking extraordinary measures to protect themselves, by introducing national vaccination requirements for travellers arriving from infected countries.

That polio, once a leading cause of disability worldwide, can now be prevented and even eradicated through an extremely inexpensive, easily administered vaccine is one of the miracles of modern medicine. It is our collective responsibility to ensure that polio does not continue to paralyse even a single child, anywhere in the world.

UNICEF and Rotary International are driving and coordinating a significant commitment from civil society around the globe, and it is essential that these calls to action are heard by political leaders.

European governments have a particular interest in ensuring the heightened efforts towards eradication are realized, given their investments to date and the risk of re-infection. This can be achieved by rapidly mobilising the financial resources required to eradicate polio from the world; advocating with and assisting the leaders of infected countries in implementing the eradication strategies; maintaining high vaccination coverage across the continent to minimise the risk and consequences of outbreaks; and fully implementing vaccination recommendations for those travelling to polio-affected areas. 

On this anniversary, we can reflect how close we are to success. It is the first anniversary since the entire Southeast Asia Region has been declared polio-free, long regarded the most technically-challenging place from where to eradicate polio. It is the first anniversary where Nigeria can be seen to be on the verge of becoming polio-free. It is the first anniversary during which every country worldwide has proven that with the right resources and political will, every child can be reached with the life-saving polio-vaccine. 

But ending polio in these few remaining infected areas is not a challenge that can be resolved by any one country or organisation. Nor can it be left at the door of those countries where cases continue to be found. The responsibility lies at the feet of every one of us, as ending polio now will ensure the protection of children all around the world. 

On this anniversary, let us intensify all of our efforts to eradicate this disease once and for all. Let us commit to achieving history, for all future generations to come.

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