In this Atlantic opinion piece, Rachel Hills, a freelance writer based in London, examines the WHO’s decision on May 25 to declare polio a public health emergency, “calling for the 194 member states to fully fund the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, and fill the currently $945 million gap in its budget for 2012-13.” She writes, “Few people probably associate the phrase ‘global health emergency’ with polio, a disease that has been around for 5,000 years and is on a decades-long decline so steep that there are less than a thousand recorded cases left on Earth,” but “polio’s threat is still very real, and the mission to finally stamp it out forever is a crucial one for reasons even bigger than the disease itself.”
“The last three countries where polio is still paralyzing children — Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria — said on Thursday that they have enlisted Muslim women and religious leaders to allay fears of vaccination and wipe out the disease,” Reuters reports. According to Shahnaz Wazir Ali, a special assistant to Pakistan’s Prime Minister who is in charge of the polio eradication campaign, more than 20 leading Islamic scholars “have signed an endorsement of the polio eradication program, which is being used to persuade Pakistani parents” to allow their children to be vaccinated, the news agency writes. In Nigeria, the Federation of Muslim Women’s Associations is backing a polio immunization campaign there, Reuters notes. “It is not the first time that the world has come tantalizingly close to wiping out the crippling disease,” the news agency writes. “‘We’re so close, there is no time for complacency,’ Dr. Christopher Elias, head of global development at the [Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation], a major donor, told Reuters in Geneva,” Reuters adds (Nebehay, 5/24).
“[P]eople everywhere have a stake in eradicating polio, as we have stamped out smallpox,” a Bloomberg View editorial states, adding, “Immunizing the last unvaccinated children on the planet is an expensive and complex undertaking, and worth it in the long run.” The editorial notes, “If polio transmission could be stopped by 2015, the net benefit from reduced treatment costs and productivity gains through 2035 would be $40 billion to $50 billion, according to a 2010 study.”
“A global initiative to rid the world of polio launched an emergency action plan on Thursday because gaps in funding and vaccination coverage threaten to derail a final push towards stamping out the paralyzing disease,” AlertNet reports (Rowling, 5/24). “Despite the dramatic drop in polio cases in the last year, the threat of continued transmission due to funding and immunization gaps has driven the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) to launch an Emergency Action Plan,” a GPEI press release states. “‘Polio eradication is at a tipping point between success and failure,’ said Dr. Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization,” the press release states. “We are in emergency mode to tip it towards success — working faster and better, focusing on the areas where children are most vulnerable,” she added, according to the release (5/24).
Writing in the Global Bioethics Blog, Stuart Rennie, a bioethics researcher and professor, notes another polio worker was killed in Pakistan last week and describes Taliban opposition to U.S.-supported polio vaccination efforts in Pakistan. “For its part, the Taliban argues that U.S. efforts to eradicate polio in Pakistan contradict U.S. efforts to combat terrorism in the region, more specifically its campaign of drone strikes,” he states, adding, “As Taliban officials argue, many more Pakistanis — including women and children not involved in terrorist activity — have died or been injured (psychologically and otherwise) from drone strikes than have died or are likely to die from polio.” He continues, “When you can see the point in a Taliban ethical argument, the world is a dark place.” Rennie concludes, “The eradication of polio is of global interest: it is important that it joins smallpox in the tiny category of eliminated infectious diseases, while we still have the chance” (10/21).
“Over 70,000 health workers and community volunteers were combing the streets and jungle paths in Sierra Leone Friday at the start of a vaccination program targeting young children in the West African country,” Agence France-Presse reports. “The four-day vaccination drive dubbed ‘Kick polio out of Sierra Leone’ is focusing on some 1.3 million children under the age of five,” the news service writes, adding, “The health ministry’s program manager, Dr. Thomas Samba, who is coordinating the initiative told AFP: ‘The vaccination exercise in Sierra Leone is being undertaken simultaneously with eight other ECOWAS states — Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Niger, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Burkina Faso, and Mali'” (10/20).
The following opinion pieces were published on Wednesday in recognition of World Polio Day, observed annually on October 24.
UNICEF Calls For 'Finishing' Global Polio Eradication; Rotary International Warns Of Funding Shortfall In India
UNICEF on Wednesday “called for continued dedication in ‘finishing the job’ in eradicating polio, while also applauding India for being ‘declared polio free’ for the first time in history,” Xinhua reports. “UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake said in a statement released â€¦ on World Polio Day, which falls on Oct. 24, that ‘fewer children than ever before suffer the debilitating effects of this cruel disease,'” the news service writes (10/24). “Lake added that the world must concentrate its efforts in reaching children that are most at risk: children with disabilities, living in extreme poverty and in conflict zones in remote areas,” the U.N. News Centre writes (10/24).
Polio Vaccination Campaign In Darfur Shows Immunizations Possible In 'Emergency And Conflict Settings'
In an Inter Press Service opinion piece, Siddharth Chatterjee, chief diplomat and head of strategic partnerships at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and Sam Agbo, an independent public health adviser in the U.K., write about the unstable situation in Darfur, Sudan, in 2004, and how “UNICEF and WHO in Sudan along with important NGO partners started planning with local authorities on how best to immunize all children in Darfur.” They outline the major challenges, including staff safety, and discuss how multi-agency teams were able to vaccinate 10,000 children in two immunization rounds. Chatterjee and Agbo add, “The polio immunization campaign was the driver for a wider process of improving and ramping up assistance to communities and this made the campaign attractive to mothers to bring their children to the immunization hubs that were established.”
October 24 “is World Polio Day, a day to celebrate the remarkable progress we’ve made in the fight against polio and to focus on the urgency of the work we still have to do,” Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, writes in “The Gates Notes” blog. “But equally important, it’s also a day to say ‘thank you’ to the millions of people around the world who have generously given their time and money to this critical effort,” he continues, and features a video thanking the different organizations working together to bring an end to polio. “To ensure success, we need to fully fund polio campaigns and routine immunizations”; “continued leadership and accountability”; and “ensure the security of vaccination teams so they can get to children — even in the most difficult areas,” Gates writes (10/24). In a post on the Gates Foundation’s “Impatient Optimists” blog, Jay Wenger, head of the polio program at the foundation, lists five reasons why he’s “excited” about World Polio Day. “It’s really because I have seen an unprecedented series of successes, commitment from existing and new donors and signs of progress that give me confidence we can finish the job,” he writes (10/23).