Polio Eradication Enters Endgame

Rotary volunteers help distribute vaccine in India, where childhood vaccine must continue in case of a reintroduction of the virus.
Rotary volunteers help distribute vaccine in India, where childhood vaccine must continue in case of a reintroduction of the virus.
By Charlene Porter
IIP Staff Writer
Washington,
April 26, 2013
A new strategy and financial backing bring new energy to the old battle to eradicate crippling polio.

The long-standing consortium conducting the campaign against this disease — the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) — announced the plan at a vaccine summit held this week in the United Arab Emirates that was hosted by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi, and Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

GPEI is backed by the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, UNICEF and Rotary International. They’ve been working to end polio since the late 1980s and are coming very close to that goal. Hundreds of thousands of cases appeared in more than 100 countries back then. In 2012, just over 223 cases occurred in only three countries — Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria. Only 22 polio cases have been reported in 2013 so far.

The April 25 announcement in Abu Dhabi outlined an eradication plan that will target both wild poliovirus and vaccine-derived cases simultaneously. The plan was announced with a large proportion of its expected cost already pledged by global leaders and philanthropists. Eradication in the six-year time frame projected by GPEI is expected to cost $5.5 billion.

“After millennia battling polio, this plan puts us within sight of the endgame,” said WHO Director-General Margaret Chan, expressing confidence in the knowledge, technologies and tactics accumulated over the decades that must eradicate the final and most-difficult -to-reach places the virus might hide.

“The extensive experience, infrastructure and knowledge gained from ending polio can help us reach all children and all communities with essential health services,” Chan said.

Achieving a polio-free status for India over the last few years is a success bringing new energy to the polio endgame campaign. India, the second most populous nation in the world, detected its last case of polio in January 2011. Passing that landmark was a testament to the intense vaccination efforts conducted across both dense urban populations and far-flung rural populations in sometimes difficult-to-reach areas.

“Ending polio will not only be a historic feat for humanity, but also a huge part of our efforts to reach every hard-to-reach child with a range of life-saving vaccines,” said UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake.

The Abu Dhabi announcement on the final stages of polio eradication is not about this disease alone. The plan also suggests a pivot for this long-standing campaign, applying its experience and resources to building immunization systems in high-priority countries.

The newest GPEI drive is “a global immunization plan with the goal of ending polio while improving efforts to protect all children, including the most vulnerable, with life-saving vaccines,” said Bill Gates. He said the plan can deliver “a polio-free world and pay dividends for future generations.”

The vaccine summit ended with commitments for about $4 billion to support polio eradication, much of it from philanthropists who are making their first investment in polio eradication. They include: the Albert L. Ueltschi Foundation, the Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Carlos Slim Foundation, the Dalio Family Foundation, the Tahir Foundation and the Foundation for a Greater Opportunity.

The United States, a partner in the polio eradication effort since the beginning, has invested more than $2 billion to rid the world of a disease that has killed and crippled people for millennia. Rotary International reports that it has raised about $9 billion from governments since 1988.