More than twenty years ago, shortly after meeting a mother in Karachi, Pakistan, I joined the Rotary Club’s efforts to eradicate polio. She was trying to support her 11-year-old son, whose leg was affected by polio. withered. She told me that the virus paralyzed three of her six children-a shocking fact given that the disease is easily preventable by vaccines.
This encounter emphasized the urgency of achieving zero cases. At that time, in my home country, Pakistan, wild polio paralyzed more than 1,000 children every year, and 45 countries were still recording cases.
Today, this wild virus is still emerging in Pakistan and another country-Afghanistan. There is no wild polio in five-sixths of the world. This progress is a testament to the collaboration between health workers, governments, and donors around the world, as well as the coordinated efforts of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) that the Rotary Club helped create in 1988.
It is not easy to get to this point in our fight against polio. The number of cases in some years has declined, but with the emergence of new obstacles, the number of cases in other years has increased.
Now we are about to eradicate this deadly disease, but we also face one of the biggest challenges to date. Therefore, it is important for GPEI to gain the support of the global community to cross the finish line.
Since the emergence of COVID-19, the effort to eradicate polio has been the case with every health plan. Last year, vaccination campaigns were correctly suspended for four months to protect frontline workers and the community. As a result, tens of millions of children missed the polio vaccination.
This exacerbates the challenges we already face. Due to insecurity and parents’ refusal to vaccinate their children, wild polio in Pakistan and Afghanistan has become epidemic again in recent years. And there have been several outbreaks of cVDPV, a non-wild form of polio that is harmful to under-immunized communities.
Although these setbacks are disappointing, GPEI has shown that it can make progress even under adverse circumstances. The initiative has successfully ended polio in several war zones and some of the most difficult areas on the planet.
It also shows how efforts to curb polio can have a wide-ranging impact on public health. During the suspension of the polio campaign, GPEI’s huge disease surveillance and front-line staff-including thousands of Rotary Club members- The key to COVID-19 response In nearly 50 countries. They help track and trace the virus, improve community-level response plans, and distribute important public health information.
GPEI has recently focused its energy on three important areas, which makes me believe that one day it can overcome this disease forever, while also supporting other public health initiatives and providing lessons for it.
First, GPEI promises to increasingly support the provision of basic health services to meet the needs of disadvantaged communities.
Many of these communities, especially in parts of Pakistan, are tired of regular visits by polio vaccinators and a few other health professionals, which has had a negative impact on the use of vaccines. Although the program has helped provide other vaccines, drugs, and maternal health advice in the past, it will be more integrated into eradication efforts to improve health more broadly.
Second, the program has been strengthening partnerships with governments of countries affected by polio and high-risk countries, and empowering local leaders to support polio vaccination campaigns and contact with families. For this reason, it is heartening to hear Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s recent pledge to continue polio treatment as Pakistan’s public health priority.
Finally, GPEI is working to expand the use of innovative tools to help us fight polio. These include the next-generation oral polio vaccine that can help end the cVDPV outbreak more sustainably, and digital payments for polio workers, which will help improve the efficiency and motivation of polio vaccination campaigns.
All these strategies are part of the new strategy GPEI Polio Eradication Strategy 2022-26, They gave us a lot of hope. But no matter how powerful our plan is, it will only succeed if the government and donors recommit the political and financial resources required by GPEI to permanently end polio. If they don’t, polio may make a comeback in previously eradicated countries, and again start to paralyze tens of thousands of children every year-considering how far we have come, this is an unimaginable prospect.
When the government supports the eradication of this disease, they are not only trying to achieve a future, families do not have to worry about their children being paralyzed by preventable diseases. They also support the entire infrastructure that can protect communities from emerging health threats, as we have seen in COVID-19.
The pandemic has stretched the resources of countries, and some countries are considering reducing support for polio. Although these are difficult times, we cannot win the fight against COVID-19 by allowing other vaccine-preventable diseases to come back. Withdrawing efforts to eradicate polio now may undermine all our achievements in the past three years.
The Rotary Club has made a promise to end polio forever, and we intend to honor this promise. Others must too.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.