Frontline Workers Lead the Charge in Polio’s Final Stand

A child in Afghanistan receives the oral polio vaccine. (© CIDA/ACDI : Sharif Azami)

The global fight against polio has reached a critical juncture, with the disease now confined to just two countries: Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative — a consortium including the World Health OrganizationRotary International, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the Gates Foundation and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance — aims to end wild poliovirus transmission in these regions by the end of the year. This will mark the culmination of a decades-long campaign that has dramatically reduced the incidence of paralytic polio worldwide.

Central to this effort are the frontline workers, primarily women from the affected communities, who go door-to-door to administer oral polio vaccines and build trust with families. Their local knowledge and personal connections have been instrumental in tracking the virus’s movements and ensuring high vaccination rates.

New tools, such as extensive sewage and surface water monitoring, have also played a vital role in detecting and preventing outbreaks. The use of the Sabin oral vaccine, despite its rare potential to revert to a paralytic form, has been a game-changer in stopping transmission and protecting billions of children. A novel version of the oral vaccine, which has been genetically modified to reduce polio outbreaks from the vaccine, was successfully introduced in 2021.

As the end of polio draws near, these frontline workers are already looking to apply the lessons learned and the tools developed to combat other infectious diseases, both familiar and emerging. Their dedication and expertise will be crucial in creating a safer, healthier world for all.

Richard Conniff wrote in a guest essay in The New York Times, “When the government of Pakistan recently surveyed them about their experience, one big question they asked was: What can we work on next?”

Read the essay by Mr. Conniff from May 22, 2024: The End of Polio Is in Sight. What Have We Learned? (Gift article, subscription not needed.)

Watch this video to learn more about the people leading the charge to eradicate polio:

The effort to eradicate polio spans the globe. In this video, meet a disease surveillance officer in Sudan, a microbiologist in the USA, a community mobilizer in Nigeria and a polio vaccinator in Pakistan, all working to make polio eradication a reality.

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