A milestone for humanity, as two of three strains of wild polio are eradicated

Seven month-old Abdihakim receives an oral polio vaccine during a national immunization campaign in Hargeisa, Somaliland. (Credit: WHO)

In a historic milestone to mark World Polio Day, Type 3 of the wild poliovirus has been declared as eradicated.

Polio, a highly infectious viral disease that mainly affects children under age five, is devastating and incurable, yet can be prevented by vaccination.

There are three strains of wild poliovirus, with two now eradicated. All strains can lead to irreversible paralysis, and 5 to 10% of those paralyzed die as their breathing muscles fail.

Thanks to the hard work of vaccination teams, health workers, educators, communities and campaigners, 99% of wild polio cases have been wiped out since 1988.

Four year-old Mahsa has her finger marked during National Immunization Day in Herat, Afghanistan. (Credit: Tuuli Hongisto)

Over 450 million children in 70 countries are reached with polio vaccines every year.

But the job is far from done. Polio case numbers increased over the last year.

Vaccine heroes

In the sprawling, riverine shanty-town of Makoko, in Lagos, Nigeria, community volunteer Peter Idowu rows from home to home; raising awareness of the danger of polio, and the vital need for vaccination.

For polio vaccination teams, navigating, and counting everyone along Makoko’s haphazard, unmarked waterways is next to impossible, but Peter, a local, knows the place like the back of his hand.

“As part of this community, and a passion for becoming a health worker myself, I’m letting parents know just how important immunization is,” he says. “My goal is to make sure all children are immunized.”

Efforts by volunteers like Peter have been key to ensuring that there have been no new polio cases in Nigeria for over three years, and since then, surveillance systems have ensured the virus is truly gone.

Today, wild poliovirus continues to circulate in just two countries; Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Four year-old Noni receives an oral vaccination in the Pakistani village of Drrimiann goth. (Credit: Asad Zaidi)

In Quetta, Pakistan, Kechi Baig is a largely religious community, where many refuse vaccinations.

Religious support officers, acting in support of local polio vaccination teams, work with communities, building trust and overcoming resistance to lifesaving vaccinations.

“I always wanted to be a doctor,” says Asma, a religious support officer in Kechi Baig, Pakistan, “but it just so happened that I joined a [religious school] and became an educator.”

As a rare female religious scholar, Asma has the ear and the respect of her community.

Asma shows local women a book written by religious authorities that covers the need for polio vaccination. (Credit: WHO/S.Gull)

“When I heard that the polio programme was looking for female religious support people, I applied, and today I work with doctors to help serve humanity.”

As one of only three female religious support personnel in the area, Asma has worked hard to cultivate lasting relationships, by running regular meetings with local women and visiting homes to convince people of the benefits of vaccination.

A woman and child in Sindh, Pakistan. (Credit: Asad Zaidi)

“In nearly every campaign I convince around 15 to 20 die-hard refusal people to get vaccinated,” she says. “It’s a great opportunity to save children from polio.”

On World Polio Day — and every day — people, communities, nations and organizations must speak up for critical, life-saving vaccines, and redouble our efforts to bring about a lasting, polio-free future.

The Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) is a global public-private initiative to end the scourge of polio once and for all.

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