We cannot afford to give up our fight against polio now

We have come a long way in defeating polio in the last 30 years and we should not allow the COVID-19 pandemic to undo these achievements.

Digital payments for polio workers are among the innovations the GPEI is implementing to help end the disease [©Gates Archive/Junior Diatezua Kannah]

I joined Rotary’s efforts to eradicate polio more than two decades ago, shortly after meeting a mother in Karachi, Pakistan, who was struggling to carry her 11-year-old son whose legs had withered from polio paralysis. She told me that the virus paralysed three of her six children – a shocking fact given that the disease is easily preventable with a vaccine.

This encounter underscored to me the urgency of getting to zero cases. Back then, wild polio was paralysing more than 1,000 children every year in my native Pakistan, and 45 countries were still recording cases.

Today, the wild virus is still being seen in Pakistan and just one other country – Afghanistan. Five out of six world regions are wild polio-free. This progress is a testament to the collaboration between health workers, governments and donors around the world, and the coordinating efforts of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), which Rotary helped found in 1988.

Getting this far in our fight against polio was not easy. The number of cases fell in some years but increased in others as new obstacles arose.

Now, we are close to eradicating this deadly disease but we are also facing one of our biggest challenges to date. So it is vital that the GPEI has the global community’s support to get across the finish line.

Efforts to eradicate polio, as is the case with every health programme, have suffered since the emergence of COVID-19. Vaccination campaigns were rightly paused for four months last year to protect front-line workers, and communities. As a result, tens of millions of children missed their polio vaccination.

This compounded the challenges we were already facing. There has been a resurgence of wild polio in Pakistan and Afghanistan in recent years due to insecurity and parents refusing to vaccinate their children against the disease. And there have been several outbreaks of cVDPV, a non-wild form of polio that is harmful to under-immunised communities.

While these setbacks are disappointing, the GPEI has shown it can make progress even when the odds are stacked against it. The initiative already successfully ended polio in several war zones and some of the most difficult geographies across the planet.

It has also shown how the efforts to stop polio have a broad impact on public health. During the pause in polio campaigns, the GPEI’s vast disease surveillance and front-line workforce – including thousands of Rotary members – were key to the COVID-19 response in almost 50 countries. They helped track and trace the virus, improve community-level planning for the response, and distribute vital public health messaging.

The GPEI has recently focused its energy on three important areas, which gave me confidence that it will one day be able to defeat this disease for good while also supporting – and providing lessons for – other public health initiatives.

First, the GPEI has made a promise to increasingly support the delivery of essential health services to meet the needs of vulnerable communities.

Many of these communities, especially in parts of Pakistan, have grown weary of regular visits from polio vaccinators and few other health professionals, which has negatively affected vaccine uptake. While the programme has in the past helped deliver other vaccines, medicines, and maternal health advice, this will become more integrated into eradication efforts to improve health more broadly.

Second, the programme has been increasing its partnerships with governments in polio-affected and high-risk countries and empowering local leaders to support polio vaccination campaigns and engagement with families. To this end, it has been heartening to hear Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s recent commitments to keep treating polio as a public health priority in Pakistan.

And finally, the GPEI is working to broaden the use of innovative new tools that can help us defeat polio. These include a next-generation oral polio vaccine that could help more sustainably end outbreaks of cVDPV, and digital payments for polio workers, which are helping improve the efficiency of polio vaccination campaigns and boost motivation.

All these tactics are part of the new GPEI Polio Eradication Strategy 2022-26, and they give us a lot to be hopeful for. But no matter how strong our plan is, it will only succeed if governments and donors recommit the political and financial resources that the GPEI needs to end polio for good. If they don’t, polio could resurge in countries where it has previously been eliminated and once again start paralysing tens of thousands of children every year – an unimaginable prospect, given how far we have come.

When governments support eradication, they are not only working towards a future where no family has to live in fear of their child being paralysed by a preventable disease. They are also supporting an entire infrastructure that can protect communities from emerging health threats, as we saw so powerfully with COVID-19.

The pandemic has stretched countries’ resources, and some are considering reducing their support for polio. While these are difficult times, we cannot afford to win the fight against COVID-19 by allowing other vaccine-preventable diseases to resurge. Pulling back on efforts to eradicate polio now risks undoing everything we accomplished over the last three decades.

Rotary made a promise to end polio for good and it is one we intend to deliver on. Others must, too.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.