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World Polio Day cheers major achievements toward global polio eradication

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By Ryan Hyland

Rotary and its partners in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) are celebrating a major milestone this World Polio Day: confirmation that a second type of the wild poliovirus has been eradicated, which is a significant step toward the ultimate goal of a polio-free world.

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), announced the historic feat in a video address during Rotary’s Global Online Update on 24 October. He said an independent commission of health experts certified the global eradication of the type 3 strain, which hasn't been detected anywhere in the world since Nigeria identified a case of polio that it caused in November 2012. The type 2 strain was certified as eradicated in 2015.

“That leaves just wild poliovirus type 1,” Tedros said. He also commended Rotary’s long fight against polio. “Everything you [Rotary] have done has brought us to the brink of a polio-free world.”

Tedros balanced the good news with a note of caution, saying that the biggest enemy of global eradication is complacency. He encouraged Rotary members to redouble their efforts.

“We must stay the course. Together, we can make sure the children of the future only learn about polio in history books.”

“If we stopped now, the virus would resurge and could once again cause more than 200,000 new cases every year,” said Tedros. “We must stay the course. Together, we can make sure the children of the future only learn about polio in history books.”

Rotary’s World Polio Day program this year was streamed on Facebook in multiple languages and multiple time zones around the world. The program, which was sponsored by UNICEF USA and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, featured TV presenter and Paralympic medalist Ade Adepitan, supermodel Isabeli Fontana, science educator Bill Nye, and actress Archie Panjabi.

The program also featured never-before-seen footage of three Rotary members working to protect children from polio in their home countries of India, Pakistan, and Ukraine. In Pakistan, Rotarian Tayyaba Gul works with a team of health workers to educate mothers and children about the importance of polio vaccination. Dr. Hemendra Verma of India encourages his fellow Rotary members and our partners to make sure health workers and volunteers reach every child. And Ukrainian Rotarian Sergii Zavadskyi oversees an advocacy and awareness program that uses social media and public events to educate people who are reluctant to have their children vaccinated. These three heroes of the polio eradication effort show what it means to be a dedicated volunteer, and represent the efforts of Rotarians all over the world.

Adepitan, a polio survivor who contracted the disease as a child in Nigeria, praised the efforts in that country, which hasn’t reported finding wild poliovirus in more than three years. “This is massive news,” Adepitan said.

Nigeria’s milestone clears the way for the entire WHO African region to be certified wild poliovirus-free next year. Adepitan reminded people just how far the continent has come, saying that even a decade ago, Africa reported nearly 75 percent of all polio cases worldwide.

“Today more than a billion African people are at the cusp of a future where wild polio is a disease of the past,” he said. “We’re not done. We’re in pursuit of an even greater triumph — a world without polio. I can’t wait.”

Scientist Bill Nye talked about some people’s reluctance to use vaccines, which he called a dangerous issue around the world. “As the conversation around vaccines becomes more hostile, we’re seeing an increase in outbreaks of preventable diseases. It’s not just measles. It’s rotavirus. Tetanus. Even polio,” he said. However, he said: “The science on vaccinations is settled. There is no dispute.”

Look even just at what Rotary and its partners have achieved since 1988, when the GPEI was formed, Nye said. Three decades ago, the disease affected 350,000 children in one year. Because of massive vaccination campaigns around the world, the number of polio cases has decreased by more than 99.9 percent.

“That’s about as concrete as evidence gets for preventative medicine,” Nye said.

Rotary's 2019 World Polio Day Global Online Update highlights the frontline workers who make polio eradication possible and the milestones that the program achieved this past year.

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 is 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.