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Global health leaders see a clear path to polio eradication

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Rotary and WHO’s World Polio Day 2022 and Beyond event in Geneva, Switzerland, brought health experts together to share updates, exchange ideas

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Global health leaders expressed confidence that polio will be eradicated worldwide and praised the frontline workers who are striving to achieve that goal during an event at the World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, 21-22 October. 

Sponsored by Rotary International and WHO, World Polio Day 2022 and Beyond updated participants and viewers on the status of polio eradication. It also discussed possible community-based solutions that go beyond immunizations to improve the health of mothers and children.

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of WHO, speaking at the opening session, said that polio eradication is within reach. He cited the fact that the work of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) has reduced cases by 99.9%, from 350,000 in 1988 to only six cases last year. However, he acknowledged that the global effort has lost ground this year, with 20 cases in Pakistan and two in Afghanistan. Those are the only two countries where the transmission of the wild poliovirus has never been stopped. But the diagnosis of a polio case in the U.S., and the detection of poliovirus in sewage in the United Kingdom “show that polio will remain a global threat until it is eradicated everywhere.” Polio cases have also been diagnosed in Malawi and Mozambique last year and this year.

“We still face many challenges, including misinformation, hard-to-access populations, and community fatigue,” Dr. Tedros said. 

Polio immunization programs for children have faced historic disruption, largely because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has added to the challenges. “Without concerted action, we could lose the gains we have made,” Dr. Tedros added.

The GPEI’s polio eradication strategy for 2022-26 is designed to meet these challenges by using both proven solutions and innovative new tools. At the World Health Summit in Berlin, Germany, earlier in October, donors, including Rotary, committed US$2.6 billion to fund the strategy. These funds will support polio immunizations in countries where polio is endemic and in those that have had recent outbreaks. It will also fund adoption of the new type 2 oral polio vaccine (nOPV2), which is a genetically modified version of a current vaccine and is less likely to cause outbreaks of circulating vaccine-derived polio, also known as variant polio.

Funds will also support the GPEI’s commitment to empowering women at all levels of health care. “Gender equality is critical to achieving eradication, because in many of the most affected communities, only women are allowed access to the homes and [to] children other than their own,” Dr. Tedros noted. 

He assured the audience that polio eradication will remain a top priority for WHO. “With Rotary’s support, I look forward to a future when the only thing children ever learn about polio is in the history books,” said Dr. Tedros. 

Other global health experts who spoke at the event included Aidan O’Leary, director for polio eradication at WHO; Steven Lauwerier, director of polio eradication at UNICEF; and Ambassador Hans-Peter Jungel, deputy permanent representative for Germany. 

“Not only is polio eradication feasible, it’s within grasp,” O’Leary told attendees.

Vaccinating every child against polio must continue to be the priority, said Lauwerier. “A vaccine alone, if it stays in the vial, doesn’t make a change,” he emphasized. 

During a question-and-answer session with RI President Jennifer Jones and Jeffrey Kluger, editor at large for TIME magazine, Jones said, “We’re making incredible progress, and we need to be proud of where we’re at.”

The second day of the event focused on preventive care and mothers’ and children’s health. Breakout sessions discussed regional needs and opportunities for collaboration.

  1. Attendees give the “this close” sign at the World Polio Day 2022 and Beyond event on 21 October in Geneva, Switzerland.

  2. Aidan O’Leary, director of polio eradication at WHO, speaks at the World Polio Day 2022 and Beyond event on 21 October in Geneva, Switzerland.

  3. Attendees listen to a presentation at the World Polio Day 2022 and Beyond event on 21 October in Geneva, Switzerland.

  4. Attendees gather at the World Polio Day 2022 and Beyond event on 21 October in Geneva, Switzerland.

  5. Rotary President Jennifer Jones, right, and Jeffery Kluger, senior writer for TIME magazine, discuss polio eradication efforts at the World Polio Day 2022 and Beyond event on 21 October in Geneva, Switzerland.

Global Update underscores the importance of vaccinations

Rotary also released the World Polio Day 2022 Global Update video, which features other global health experts. They underscored the importance of vaccinations as the only sure protection against polio and other vaccine-preventable diseases.

Dr. Hamid Jafari, director of polio eradication for WHO, said the diagnosis of polio cases in Malawi and Mozambique, as well as the variant poliovirus detections in New York, London, and Israel, demonstrate polio’s lingering threat.

“As long as the poliovirus survives anywhere, it remains a threat to children and unvaccinated persons everywhere,” he said.

Dr. John Vertefeuille, polio eradication branch chief for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), noted the importance of continuing surveillance after cases of polio stop.

“On the road to eradication and containment, surveillance will continue to play a critical role in the certification process, ensuring that poliovirus transmission has been interrupted, and the hard-earned win of a polio-free world will be maintained post-certification,” he said.

Experts who are part of the national immunization program in Pakistan also talked about the GPEI’s gender strategy and the importance of employing female frontline health workers to ensure that campaigns reach every child with the polio vaccine. 

“We found that females were reluctant to be vaccinated by male vaccinators,” says Dr. Soofia Yunus, director general for the Federal Directorate of Immunization in Pakistan. “In every strategy we make and in every activity that we conduct, we ensure that females are part of it.”

As O’Leary said at World Polio Day 2022 and Beyond, “The path forward is absolutely clear. We have the tools. We have the strategies. We have a ruthless focus.”

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