Do You Have a Big Idea that Will Eradicate Polio Worldwide?

Spencer Trask
Oct 23, 2019 · 8 min read

Solve the Spencer Trask InnoCentive Challenge to Completely Wipe Polio Off the Map (and Win a $10,000 Award)

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Credit: Khaula Jamil/Rotary International

It may surprise most that polio still poses a threat everywhere throughout the world. After all, 80% of the world’s population now lives in areas where the disease has been eradicated. Since 1988, when the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) began, the Center for Disease Control estimates that polio vaccines have prevented more than 13 million cases of paralysis. Today, 99.9% of the entire population has been vaccinated against polio.

The results are staggering, especially considering such a short time period. However, unless the remaining .01% is vaccinated within the next 10 years, the disease could return with a vengeance. It is very possible that as many as 200,000 new cases could occur around the world each year if total eradication efforts fail. Science and technology are playing their part. What is needed now are innovative solutions to fight back against the seemingly never-ending onslaught of online misinformation campaigns.

Why is Polio Dangerous?

Poliomyelitis, or simply polio, is a highly infectious disease that most commonly affects children under the age of 5. It can lead to paralysis, even death if untreated, and unfortunately there is no cure. The spread of the disease can only be impeded through a vaccination program and continued surveillance.

Reports of a disease that caused deformities in children can be traced back to Egyptian times, but it wasn’t until 1894 that the first documented outbreak of polio occurred in the U.S., and in 1905 that two Viennese physicians discovered that the disease is caused by a virus. In 1916, U.S. public health officials issued an epidemic directive when more than 27,000 patients were infected and more than 6,000 people across the country died from polio. Thereafter, every summer, when the disease would appear in much of the U.S., parents feared letting their children swim in public pools, go to a movie theater, or even play outside. Hospital wards quickly filled with children requiring iron lung respirators to survive or who were destined to spend the rest of their lives crippled. Throughout the 1940s and into the 1950s, polio epidemics grew more serious and widespread, and more than 22,000 Americans were paralyzed each year.

Why Have Global Polio Eradication Efforts Been Successful?

In 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt, himself an adult victim of polio, founded the March of Dimes, a non-partisan association of scientists, physicians, and volunteers to fund research for a polio vaccine. Among those scientists was Dr. Jonas Salk, who in 1955 developed the first polio vaccine that was determined to be “safe and effective.” As a result of a widespread national vaccination program, the number of polio cases across the country fell to fewer than 100 in the 1960s and less than 10 in the 1970s.

In 1979, Rotary International undertook the first international vaccination campaign with a multi-year vaccination program in the Philippines. Building upon the success of that program, in 1988 the organization joined with the World Health Organization (WHO) and other entities to establish the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. The initiative’s goal was the complete worldwide eradication of polio. At that time, there were an estimated 350,000 cases of polio across the globe in more that 125 countries. Today, all but two countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan, have been determined to be polio-free by WHO. Several factors have contributed to the spectacular success of this program.

The Power of Vaccines

Even before the development of vaccines, knowledge about the poliomyelitis virus had reached such an extent that scientists had an in-depth understanding of the epidemiology and three clinical forms of the disease. Since the U.S. government licensed Albert Sabin’s oral vaccine in 1960, scientists have been successful in eradicating one strain of wild poliovirus (WPV) through oral polio vaccination (OPV), Type 2 WPV. OPVs have an added benefit; as the vaccine passes through the digestive system, the subject’s excrement that has traces of the vaccine actually acts as a “passive” vaccine for anyone who comes into contact with it. Since polio is spread through contact with human waste — whether as a result of poor sanitation or unclean water supplies — OPVs offer an important steppingstone in eradication efforts. The inactivated Salk vaccine (IPV), is often needed to finalize eradication efforts, since the virus is “dead” and poses no risk of contraction to the vaccine recipient.

Technology Aids Education Effort

An important component of a successful vaccination strategy includes outreach through social media and mobile phones. Messaging can be crafted to appeal to segmented populations that can view the text or phone message at their own convenience. Health organizations can use social media influencers to appeal to wider populations through coordinated campaigns. Text messaging also provides the opportunity for two-way communication, which makes monitoring immunization campaigns easier. In one very successful promotion used in Somalia, residents were educated on the vaccination process and offered household water treatment supplies obtained by redeeming vouchers sent by text.

Taking a Collaborative Approach

From the outset, GPEI has been a bright example of the way a collection of organizations and people can come together to combat the most pressing health and environmental issues facing the world. The goal of global polio eradication is possible as a result of the expertise, experience, and dedication each entity brings to the effort. That sense of cooperation is passed along to workers and officials who provide local health services and know community attitudes best. In many small or remote villages, there is a natural mistrust of strangers. Involving local community leaders to serve as advocates for vaccinations and dispel misgivings has proven to be very successful for increasing vaccination rates.

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Credit: Alyce Henson/Rotary International

Applying the Legacy Work

Even as the goal of global eradication of polio seems well within reach, it is important that the hard work and lessons learned are continually applied and complacency avoided; this includes mainstreaming the activities and monitoring of populations in areas of continued concern. Experience will help facilitate immunization campaigns going forward, as well as improve response and containment efforts should outbreaks occur. It also involves sharing the knowledge gained in the battle against polio with organizations that are undertaking other health initiatives. Finally, it is important to build on and constantly improve communication and community engagement. It is important to maintain the trust that has been established and build long lasting relationships.

Why is There Still A Threat From Polio?

Despite the overwhelming success in eradicating polio across the globe, there are two countries where polio is still very much a threat to the population, Pakistan and Afghanistan (Nigeria recently celebrated 3 years without a case of polio being reported). Spread of the virus from these two countries to nearby neighbors like Iraq, Syria, and India by an infected person could cause outbreaks in areas where eradication efforts have been successful, making proximity a cause for concern.

Why has the global initiative failed to wipe out polio in these countries? It seems the largest obstacles are man-made.

Living in Remote Regions

Many of the remaining pockets of the potential for polio outbreaks are in some of the most remote regions on earth. Health workers and volunteers often have to travel days on foot over challenging terrain to reach just one family that has not been vaccinated. It is often difficult to maintain supply chains due to the geographic, weather, and security challenges.

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Credit: Monika Lozinska/Rotary International

Corruption and Political Agendas

Hard as it may be to believe, there are individuals who put monetary or political gain above the welfare of a child. In Pakistan, traders and small business operators threatened to boycott vaccination programs unless the government revoked plans for a sales tax. Local tribes often demand government concessions in return for allowing campaigns to occur. In order to get medical supplies across borders and between warring factions, “duties” are often expected to allow deliveries to be made.

Calculated Misinformation Campaigns

It should probably come as no surprise, but the single most damaging barrier to global polio eradication is false and misleading claims against the safety and effectiveness of the polio vaccine. In Pakistan, for instance, fake news reports and videos spread over social media with claims of children’s deaths following vaccinations. The result was that more than 10,000 vaccination refusals were reported per day, whereas the number of refusals during the previous campaign never topped 300 a day. It reached the point where the Pakistani government requested that Facebook remove harmful anti-vaccination content from its site. It is often easy to mislead populations, already mistrustful of the U.S., into believing that the vaccination campaigns are being conducted with another agenda. Such was actually the case when the CIA conducted a fake vaccination drive in an attempt to track down Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, and it took years to regain trust. Unfortunately, all it takes is for one misinformed family to believe the lies and prevent their children from being vaccinated to put the entire area’s children at risk.

Don’t Let the Lies Win. Accept the Spencer Trask InnoCentive Challenge

You may not be able to trek over mountainous terrains or battle corruption in remote villages to help eradicate polio in Pakistan. However, when it comes to fighting back against campaigns of misinformation being waged against vaccinations, you just might have the solution the world is searching for.

Spencer Trask & Co. is partnering with Rotary International and the World Health Organization to crowdsource a global call-to-action for innovative methods to combat the spread of online misinformation against polio vaccinations in Pakistan. The three organizations have engaged crowdsourcing pioneer, InnoCentive, to oversee this challenge that will award $10,000 each for up to three winning solutions (restrictions apply).

As Kevin Kimberlin, Chairman of Spencer Trask stated when announcing the InnoCentive Challenge: “There is a powerful collective intelligence to be harnessed through this platform. We believe it can bring fresh ideas to the teams working in the region, and help them complete their mission of eradicating polio.” Join us in this unified effort to eradicate polio, globally, for good.

The Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) is an unprecedented partnership between national governments, Rotary International, World Health Organization (WHO), United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF), and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and financial assistance from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

For more information on InnoCentive, the leading open innovation and crowdsourcing platform, visit their website at www.innocentive.com.

Spencer Trask & Co.

Spencer Trask & Co.

Spencer Trask

Written by

Spencer Trask & Co. transforms big ideas into world-leading ventures through the power of the Spencer Trask Network.

Spencer Trask & Co.

Spencer Trask & Co. transforms big ideas into world-leading ventures.

Spencer Trask

Written by

Spencer Trask & Co. transforms big ideas into world-leading ventures through the power of the Spencer Trask Network.

Spencer Trask & Co.

Spencer Trask & Co. transforms big ideas into world-leading ventures.

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