We are living through an unprecedented moment in time. With COVID-19 vaccine procurement and delivery underway, we are in the midst of a global health effort unlike what many of us have seen. But in some ways, we have been here before – with polio.
In the early part of the twentieth century, few diseases affected children and communities more than polio. At its peak, the disease devastated over 350,000 lives every year, disproportionately affecting children under the age of five. By the early 1950s, widespread polio outbreaks in countries around the world led to shutdowns of schools, parks and pools – much like what the world has experienced this past year during the coronavirus pandemic.
So, how did we address one of the biggest public health challenges of its time? While polio is not curable, there is an effective vaccine to prevent it. Immediately following the licensing of the vaccine in 1955, a mass vaccination campaign was launched and, by 1988, polio had disappeared from the US, Australia and much of Europe. But it remained prevalent in more than 125 countries.
At that time, Rotary International, UNICEF and our partners in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) – which now include the World Health Organization (WHO); the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance – undertook the ambitious goal to rid the world of polio. The outcome has been extraordinary: Polio has been reduced by 99 per cent, and nearly 19 million people who may have otherwise been paralyzed are walking as a result of vaccination. Just two countries continue to report cases of wild polio: Afghanistan and Pakistan.
So why are we talking about polio vaccines now? Because vaccines have proven to be one of the greatest advances of modern medicine.
The World Health Organization estimates that vaccines save between 2 to 3 million lives each year. Specifically, the equitable distribution of the oral polio vaccine (OPV) to vulnerable children across the globe – including in hard-to-reach areas rife with conflict – has been critical to the progress made in the fight to eradicate polio, and it’s this example we should look to as we continue our COVID-19 immunization efforts.
“We have it in our own hands to achieve success in stopping the coronavirus, just as we do with polio,” said Rotary International President Holger Knaack. “There are no technical or biological reasons why polio or COVID-19 should persist anywhere in the world. It is now a question of political and societal will.”
As we seek to ensure that everyone receives a coronavirus immunization, we are also mindful that, as more doses of COVID-19 vaccines become available and delivery is scaled up, the capacity of existing childhood immunization programmes will be stretched.
“We must adequately plan for the implementation of COVID-19 vaccine delivery needs in parallel with other immunizations and other essential services, not at their cost,” said Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director.
While the development and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines have brought hope, promise and a vision of a return to normalcy in some parts of the world, many continue to suffer outbreaks that are driving daily worldwide infections to their highest levels yet. The devastation in India topped 400,000 cases a day at its peak in mid-May, and the country dealt with a critical oxygen shortage, a lack of hospital beds, and a mounting death toll. We must ensure that countries like India, and Brazil, are supported through this crisis, and that communities receive fair and equal access to vaccines by revisiting the playbook we used to eliminate wild polio in all but two countries.
Ultimately, there is a role for everyone to play to curb the pandemic: Individually, by taking a vaccine when it becomes available, stopping the spread of vaccine misinformation in our communities, and educating those around us on the safety and necessity of vaccines. And collectively, organizations like Rotary and UNICEF and our other partners in the GPEI must continue to leverage our polio partnership to strengthen health and immunization systems around the world, because we recognize that the pandemic will not be over for anyone until it is over for everyone.
Meghan Doetschman is a Manager of Global Cause Partnerships for UNICEF USA.
Stephanie Jacquier is a Partnerships Specialist for Global Philanthropy at UNICEF.