Eradicating polio worldwide

Reporter: Rebecca Watson

This New Year will bring celebration as the World Health Organization has deemed India officially polio-free as of Jan. 14 after the country reported no cases of the disease in three years.
The world is now 99 per cent polio-free, but the battle is not over. The World Health Organization says mass polio vaccinations are planned for December across the Middle East targeting 22 million children. In 1988 there were estimated 350,000 cases reported worldwide and today 334 cases remain.
Governments and organizations from around the world such as Rotary International, UNICEF, the U.S. Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the World Heath Organization and all the dedicated volunteers within those organizations, are working towards the goal of fully eradicating polio by 2018.
One of the major contributors is Rotary International and through their PolioPlus program, have given over US $1 billion in donations as the second largest private sector support group.
Former Rotary International President Wilfrid Wilkinson says this is the first time (after smallpox) there has been a global effort to rid the earth of a disease.
The World Health Organization is leading the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, which has been in effect since 1988. When the initiative started, about a thousand new cases were seen each day across 125 countries.
A previous goal for 2014 was set to have the earth cleared of polio, but the number of total cases has increased from 223 to 334 since the same time last year.
As a dedicated Rotary volunteer, Cynde Covington, from Jacksonville, Florida, knows first hand the effects of polio after administering vaccinations in India on three separate missions.
She says because they are so close, they are pushing harder than ever, but certain barriers continue to create setbacks.
“It’s like, if you’re climbing Mount Everest, when you get to the top, the rock has not been messed with. It’s loose and shaky and is the toughest part of the climb. That’s where we are. We’re at that last toughest part,” says Covington. “We have to get into areas where there’s fighting, where people are uneducated about it and where people are scared of the vaccine. We’re at the very end of it but it’s going to be the hardest.”
According to the World Health Organization, Syria was previously polio-free, but the country had 13 type 1-virus cases this year that can be closely linked to the virus found in water samples from Egypt.
Hajra Wilson is a retired x-ray technician and Rotarian volunteer from Cambridge, Ontario. Having led multiple teams to India and Pakistan, she says clean water, sanitation and overall health care are important. During National Immunization Days, every child under five receives drops of polio vaccine and may also receive other medications like Vitamin A and Zinc to prevent vomiting or diarrhea.
“If their hands are contaminated with feces and then they feed the child, or the child puts their hands in their mouth,” says Wilson. “That’s why it’s important to have fresh, clean water, and also proper sewer systems.”
According to the World Health Organization, environmental samples carrying the virus have also been found in Israel and The West Bank and Gaza Strip. An extensive outbreak response continues to be enforced across those regions.
Dr. Bob Scott, chair of Rotary International’s Polio Plus campaign, says another main issue is the Taliban in north Pakistan. In some areas they have banned all vaccinations, making it very difficult to get medications in.
“We don’t want vaccinators getting killed. If they ban you completely and don’t let you in, you don’t go, you negotiate,” says Scott. “[Health officials] have negotiated very successfully in many parts of the world, including successful negotiations in Afghanistan where we think we’ve got the wild polio virus eliminated. That was a great job of negotiating, getting into areas where they said you couldn’t go.”
Recent negotiations have the Taliban in Afghanistan co-operating so extensively that some now sit on the committee to help organize vaccinations, says Scott.
The recent advancements in Afghanistan mean more children can be immunized, but in places like Nigeria, particularly in the state of northwest Borno, vaccinators still find difficulty getting in.
Nigeria recently had killings of volunteers, but the deaths are not actually thought to be because of vaccinations, says Scott. Pakistan, however, has reported multiple killings directly aimed at polio vaccinators.
Seven countries continue to be vaccinated moving forward – Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Turkey, Jordan, West Bank and Egypt.
For these countries, polio is a prominent concern. Yet back in the Americas, polio is not something regularly thought of because a lot of people don’t know about it, says Charlie Cogan, dean of admissions at Carlton College in Minnesota, Rotarian and Peace Corps volunteer.
“I was in the Peace Corps in West Africa for three years and it [even] took me about two of those years to figure out all the people with one leg shorter than the other were polio survivors,” says Cogan.
Polio has been eradicated from Canada and the United States for over 20 years, but the Global Polio Eradication Initiative’s goals are not only to save future generations in Third World countries but the entire world.
Today the world is globalized and people are continually travelling which makes polio just a plane ride away.
Cogan explained that continued and proper immunization routines would ensure the safety of children everywhere.
“Once you can stamp it out in those countries it will be hard to spill over,” says Cogan.
It took 25 years to reduce polio down to one per cent. Delivering vaccines any way possible, whether by camel, donkey, boat, motorcycle, or going street to street, it’s what the many volunteers have dedicated their lives to do: doing whatever it takes to make a 100 per cent polio-free world.