Polio vaccination and eradication – going beyond the drops

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.

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  1. Meg, Without Rotary International’s commitment, in 1985, to eradicate polio in the world, there would not have been a Global Polio Eradication Initiative formed, in 1988. Rotary brought this partnership together, and continues, with unwavering support, to see polio eradicated.

    1. Dear Dr.Steinberg – thank you for your comment. We completely agree that we wouldn’t be able to achieve this without the work of amazing partners at all levels, all around the world.

  2. I echo Dr. Steinberg’s thoughts. It will be only the second disease ever to be eradicated. That’s quite an accomplishment, and to realize that Rotarians around the world have devoted their time and treasure for 30 years to the program is astounding. Kudos, Rotarians!

  3. […] Polio vaccination and eradication – going past the drops Polio, as soon as a illness feared around the globe, has turn into a worldwide success story for vaccines. Earlier than the race for international polio eradication, youngsters all over the world have been weak to this devastating and incurable illness that always led to paralysis … Learn extra on UNICEF Connect (blog) […]

  4. The eradication of polio began with early pilot programs by Rotary in the Philippines. The Rotary Club of Mabalacat in the province of Pampanga held the first organized inoculations in 1983. That pilot program led to the development and manual which was used for many future vaccinations. I am greatly concerned that no attention as been given to the efforts made by Rotary International and the thousands of RotaryClubs to the lengthly road they have traveled in eliminating polio. If the political leaders of a few countries would eliminate the resistance toward inoculations in their country, this crippling disease would no longer exist..

    1. Dear Ron, thank you for your comment. Without the work of numerous partners all around the world, the gains that have been made against polio would not have been possible.

  5. Meg, I echoed all Rotarians regarding our fund raising efforts regarding Polio. It is sad that UNICEF did not even mentioned the role of Rotary in the fight for eradicating polio. What a shame! My club, Rotary of Petion Ville in Haiti raises money every year for polio on Polio day. This year we send over 7,000$ to the Polio Fund.

  6. Dear Marlene, thank you for sharing your views. We fully acknowledge the work that numerous organizations all around the world have done towards polio eradication. In all the countries where we work, we do so in collaboration with partners at all levels – and achieving our desired vision for children is only possible if everyone else is working towards it too.

  7. Thank you for sharing these comments.

    UNICEF honors the contributions of all organizations working towards our common goal of polio eradication. The historic progress made to protect children against polio would not have been possible without the tireless efforts of international, national and local partners around the world.

    The World Health Assembly called for polio eradication in 1988. That year, there were an estimated 350 000 polio cases. Twenty-six years later, the number of polio cases has decreased by over 99%, with 359 cases caused by wild poliovirus reported in 2014. Today, only three countries (Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan) remain polio-endemic, down from over 125 in 1988. This amazing achievement is thanks to the power of immunization and a unique collaboration under the “Global Polio Eradication Initiative”.

    The Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) is a partnership spearheaded by UNICEF, the World Health Organization, Rotary International, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, supporting governments in the pledge they made in 1988 to achieve a polio free world. When GPEI was established, it built heavily on Rotary’s Polio Plus program, that had been launched several years earlier, and which remains key to the polio eradication drive. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative has since grown to become the largest public health initiative the world has ever known. Rotary continues to play a key role in mobilizing resources and communities and advocating for this noble cause. Other major international partners include USAID, the UN Foundation and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.

    To protect all children and stay on track for polio eradication, our partnership and our joint commitment is more important than ever as we race to introduce IPV in over 100 countries around the world by the end of 2015.