Thirty years ago, there were over 350,000 cases of wild polio virus each year. In 2014, there were just 359 and so far this year, only 51. That’s a 99.9 percent decrease, a truly remarkable accomplishment. Earlier this year, Nigeria – which in 2012 recorded 122 cases of paralysis and was considered one of the most difficult places in the world in which to eliminate polio – became polio-free. Nigeria’s success means Afghanistan and Pakistan are the last two countries left in the world to eliminate their domestic strains of poliovirus.
The Global Polio Eradication Initiative plans to halt all transmission of polio in 2016 and to have the disease declared eradicated in 2019. The remaining 0.1 per cent is in the hardest to reach places and there remains a tough road ahead. However, there are clear reasons why UNICEF is optimistic about – and an enthusiastic partner in – the eradication effort. Here are my top three:
- More people than ever before want their children vaccinated!
Over 17,000 social mobilizers, joined by community and religious leader in Pakistan, Nigeria and Afghanistan are working to build more demand for the polio vaccine. The majority of the 4,000 recently recruited vaccinators in Pakistan are women who have been selected by the community and are trained to promote other health practices beyond oral polio vaccine. The number of caregivers who believe that giving polio drops to their children is a “good idea” is also at a record high. Recently, 96 per cent of care-givers polled in Nigeria said they believe the polio vaccine is good for their children and 98 per cent in Pakistan. The proportion of families who refuse to allow their children to be vaccinated is lower than ever in the history of the eradication effort – less than 0.6 percent in all of the polio-endemic countries.
- We are focusing efforts to reach every last child!
Polio is still circulating not because people don’t want the vaccine but because there are areas that the vaccine has been unable to reach. In order to reach all children, we have to better understand the underlying reasons why some children are still being missed and develop carefully tailored strategies to address them. Even in highly insecure areas, barriers to vaccinations are being overcome through tenacity and innovation on the part of communities, front-line workers, national governments and their partners in the global polio programme. Innovations are also helping to drive results. In Pakistan, we’re using voice SMS to help community leaders get the word out. We’re using Bluetooth video sharing in Nigeria and digital mapping to pinpoint all locations where oral polio vaccine is available in Lebanon. The creative use of technology is taking us closer to identifying and truly reaching every last child with polio vaccine.
- We’re slowing the virus down!
We’re not only reaching more children than ever before, the virus has been cornered and is now rapidly losing its battle for life. When outbreaks occur we are able to respond faster and more effectively than ever before and today only one of the three poliovirus strains remains in circulation. In September 2015 Type 2 (WPV2) was certified by WHO as having been eradicated, while type 3 (WPV3) has not been detected since November 2012.
Polio can and will be eradicated – we are about to make history.
Peter Crowley is the Polio Programme Team Leader at UNICEF HQs, leading UNICEF’s programmes to ensure polio vaccine is available for and reaches all children.