Polio, once a disease feared around the world, has become a global success story for vaccines. Before the race for global polio eradication, children around the world were vulnerable to this devastating and incurable disease that often led to paralysis and permanent disability.
Polio cases have since been reduced by 99 per cent and the disease now survives only in the most underserved and marginalized communities where UNICEF and its partners continue to vaccinate children in an effort to eradicate the disease globally.
When we think of polio eradication, we imagine a mother cradling her child as a health care worker squeezes a drop of vaccine into an open mouth.
But the drops are just one piece of the puzzle.
UNICEF and its partners support the administration of the oral polio vaccine in areas where polio is endemic or outbreaks have occurred. The oral vaccine is extremely effective, but because it contains a weakened form of the live virus, it can – in exceedingly rare cases – turn into the disease itself. This mutated vaccine virus can be excreted in the environment and infect other children.
This is a very rare occurrence, but it is especially worrisome in communities where immunization coverage is incomplete as it puts children at risk of being paralyzed for life.
The only way to achieve complete polio eradication is to eventually stop using the oral, live polio vaccine altogether and to introduce the inactivated vaccine that does not contain a live virus nor the risk of vaccine-derived polio virus.
UNICEF, a founding partner of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, is working with the 126 countries that are currently only using the oral version to begin introducing at least one dose of the inactivated vaccine into their immunization programmes by the end of 2015.
In 2014, efforts were focused on planning and preparing for the introduction of the inactivated vaccine. By the end of the year, 9 of 126 countries had introduced this vaccine, 116 countries had formally committed to its introduction, of which nearly 100 countries had developed introduction plans, and 66 of 72 eligible countries had been approved for financial support from Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.
Though we have come a long way, much remains to be done in 2015 for UNICEF and its partners to stay on track for polio eradication. The remaining countries relying only on the oral vaccine will need to introduce the inactivated vaccine by the end of this year, a feat made even more challenging by the need for these countries to start drafting implementation plans, communication strategies, and train staff in preparation for the eventual withdrawal of the oral vaccine.
Thanks to the countless polio workers worldwide, who have worked tirelessly for over a decade, polio eradication is now within reach as we prepare to make a global shift in the way we protect the world’s children from this disease. UNICEF and its partners have shown that global coordination for immunization saves lives as we strive to create a world where all children are able to be healthy and reach their full potential.
Meg Farrell is the IPV Coordinator in the Health Section at UNICEF Headquarters in New York.