Story Written By: Daniela Garcia
Polio, and the lifelong paralysis it can cause especially in young children, became preventable when Dr. Jonas Salk introduced the polio vaccine in 1955. Since Rotary and its partners in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative took on the fight against polio, they have developed systems to facilitate both immunizations and eradication.
This polio eradication infrastructure helps get us closer to a polio-free world. But did you know that it’s used to fight and protect against other diseases, too? Here are five examples of the polio infrastructure at work:
The cold chain
The polio vaccine must be kept cool, or it risks losing its effectiveness. The cold chain system — made up of freezers, refrigerators, and cold boxes — was developed to allow polio workers to store the vaccine and transport it over long distances in extremely hot weather. In Pakistan, a measles immunization program now relies on the same system. With the help of the cold chain, Sindh province recently reached its goal of immunizing more than 7.3 million children against measles.
A critical component in immunizing more children against polio, especially in remote regions, is microplanning. A microplan allows health workers to identify priority communities, address potential barriers, and develop a plan for a successful immunization campaign. The workers collect as many details as possible about communities to help them reach and vaccinate all of the children, and this strategy has helped keep India polio-free for five years. Now the Mewat district of India is using microplanning to increase its rates of vaccination against measles and rubella.
The polio surveillance system helps detect new cases of polio and determines where and how these cases originated. Environmental surveillance, which involves testing sewage or other environmental samples for the presence of poliovirus, helps workers confirm polio cases in the absence of symptoms like acute flaccid paralysis (AFP). In Borno state in Nigeria, the AFP surveillance system is now being used to find people with symptoms of yellow fever and was one of many tactics used during a 2018 yellow fever outbreak that resulted in the vaccination of 8 million people.
Because polio is a transmittable disease, health workers use contact tracing to learn who has come in contact with people who might be infected. Contact tracing was also critical to containing an Ebola outbreak in Nigeria in 2014. When a traveler from Liberia was diagnosed with Ebola, Nigerian officials were able to quickly trace and isolate the traveler’s contacts, helping prevent the disease from spreading further.
Emergency operations centers
An important part of the polio infrastructure that Rotary and its partners have built is the emergency operations centers network. These centers provide a centralized location where health workers and government officials can work collaboratively and generate a faster, more effective emergency response. The emergency operations center in Lagos, Nigeria, which was originally set up to address polio, was adapted to handle Ebola, and it ultimately helped the country respond quickly to an Ebola outbreak. Only 19 Ebola cases were reported, and the country was declared Ebola-free within three months.