Q&A: A Milestone in the Fight Against Polio

Posted by Chris Thomas
July 24, 2015
Health Official Administers Polio Vaccine to Child in Nigeria

Since its launch in 1988, global efforts to eradicate polio, spearheaded by national governments, have reduced the number of polio cases by 99 percent, from 350,000 annual cases to a few dozen cases in 2015. It is estimated that efforts have prevented lifelong paralysis in 10 million children worldwide.

Ellyn W. Ogden, MPH is the Worldwide Polio Eradication Coordinator for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and a Senior Technical Advisor for Health and Child Survival.  She is responsible for the Agency's polio eradication program and related immunization and disease control efforts, in over 25 countries in Africa, South Asia, and the Near East.   

What is polio?

Poliomyelitis (polio) is a highly infectious disease caused by the wild poliovirus. It invades the nervous system, and can cause paralysis or even death in a matter of hours.  For thousands of years, polio was a leading cause of disability, arriving without warning and causing lifelong paralysis.

What milestone is Nigeria celebrating?

July 24 marks one year since the last reported case of wild polio in Nigeria.  This is a significant milestone in the largest country in Africa and, historically, the main virus reservoir responsible for repeated outbreaks across the world.  Just three ago, Nigeria seemed to be losing the battle against polio and recorded more than half of all global cases.  I want to congratulate and thank the legions of volunteers, health workers, community leaders, mobilizers, lab staff, religious and traditional leaders, and the millions of others who contributed to this Herculean effort to reach every child, multiple times with polio vaccine.

But Wild Polio Virus has been known to circulate silently for more than three years so it is far too soon for Nigeria to be complacent.  The risk of undetected transmission remains in Nigeria and other vulnerable areas in and around conflict zones of Africa.

When will Africa be certified polio-free?

At least two more years must pass without a case of wild poliovirus for the World Health Organization’s African region, including Nigeria, to be certified polio-free. This will require continued government leadership across the African region, particularly in Nigeria, high quality immunization campaigns, and improved routine immunization, monitoring, and sustained vigilance.  We don't want any cases of polio to go unnoticed or unreported. If Nigeria sustains high quality campaigns (more than 90 percent coverage, even in remote and hard to reach areas) and continues to improve routine immunization, the virus will stop.  Achieving eradication in Nigeria and Africa will bring us closer than ever to a world without polio.

When will the world be polio-free?

Polio will be stopped. We need continued political will, quality immunization campaigns, stronger routine immunization, and active disease surveillance. The world will be declared polio-free three years after the last polio case is identified.  

What is USAID’s role in the global polio eradication effort?

The Global effort to eradicate polio is spearheaded by Rotary International, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), WHO and UNICEF and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. USAID has played a critical role, recognizing and raising the importance of mobile populations, cross-border coordination, communication and the need for more women vaccinators.  In fact, working with local community organizations, women’s groups and self-help groups, the messages have gone well beyond polio to address other immunizations, water and sanitation, breastfeeding and handwashing. USAID’s support for facility-based and community-based disease surveillance provides the data and verification that the immunization efforts are working. Increasingly, this network of disease surveillance officers is also searching for cases of other vaccine preventable diseases and are at the front lines during any disease outbreak or natural disaster. Our steady financial support and technical leadership has contributed to this success and laid the foundation for a lasting legacy. 

How important are vaccines to global health?

Vaccines are one of the best buys in public health and global development—the cheapest, most lasting measure we have to save a child’s life. Vaccines protect us from twenty-five different diseases, such as measles, whooping cough, polio, and meningitis, and avert an estimated 2 to 3 million deaths each year.

Working closely with host country governments, Ministries of Health and Finance, and in-country and global Alliance partners, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is bringing its financial, technical, and diplomatic efforts together to support country immunization programs to reach all children with critical, safe vaccines.

About the Author: Chris Thomas serves as a Health and Development Officer at the U.S. Agency for International Development.

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