WHS 2022: ‘We can do it. We must do it. So let’s do it.’
Germany co-hosts the pledging moment for the Global Polio Eradication Initiative’s 2022-2026 strategy
The panel © GIZ
No child should have to live with paralysis from polio
In 2015, Minda Dentler – an American endurance athlete, mother and polio survivor – travelled to India to take part in a national polio immunisation campaign. The experience was a ‘full-circle moment,’ Dentler explained before a rapt audience at the Polio Eradication Pledging Moment, co-hosted by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) at the 2022 World Health Summit in Berlin.
‘In the back streets of New Delhi, mothers offered their babies to me and I gave them each two drops of the life-saving polio vaccine,’ she said. ‘My birth mother didn’t have access to the vaccine when I was a baby in India and I contracted polio. But I have a daughter and was able to get her immunised, and now I was in India giving the vaccine to other children for their mothers.’
‘No child should have to live with paralysis from polio,’ she continued. ‘We have the tools and strategies in place to achieve eradication. We now need renewed commitments from partners to make this hope a reality.’
The world has never been closer to eliminating polio
At the Pledging Moment, 17 partners responded to this urgent call, committing US$2.6 billion for the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI)’s 2022-2026 Strategy. The strategy aims to vaccinate nearly 370 million children against polio annually for the next five years and to achieve eradication of the disease by 2026.
Germany has pledged EUR 35 million this year for the GPEI; another EUR 37 million has been earmarked for 2023, subject to parliamentary approval.
‘We can only win the fight against polio if we tackle it worldwide,’ said Development Minister Svenja Schulze. ‘As long as the virus still exists somewhere in the world, it can spread again – in our own country, too. We now have a realistic chance to eradicate polio completely, and we want to jointly seize that chance.’
Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of the World Health Organization, reminded everyone how far the world has come in its battle with polio – from 350,000 annual polio cases when GPEI was founded in 1988, to just 6 last year – and called on continued support for the final stretch. ‘We must remember the significant challenges we have overcome to get this far against polio, stay the course and finish the job once and for all,’ he said. ‘We can do it. We must do it. So, let’s do it!’
A historical opportunity to finally wipe out this disease
Pakistan is one of only two countries in the world where wild polio remains endemic. Abdul Qadir Patel, the Minister for National Health Services, Regulations and Coordination in Pakistan, stressed that ‘Polio has been and shall remain the top-most health priority of the government. We recognise the historical opportunity we have to finally wipe out this disease.’
Immunisation efforts continue apace in Pakistan despite the recent devastating floods, the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and the difficult security situation. He paid tribute to the 27 health workers who have been killed in the course of delivering vaccines and to the Pakistani security forces who put their lives on the line to protect polio workers. ‘Decades ago, more than a thousand children a year were paralysed by polio in Pakistan,’ said the Minister. ‘The cases are now in single digits, which is a reflection of our commitment and consistent support.’
Beyond the ‘two drops’: Polio campaigns deliver broader health benefits
‘The global fight against polio has been one of the most equitable public health programmes in history,’ said Catherine Russell, the Executive Director of UNICEF. ‘To get this far health workers have had to reach virtually every household with polio vaccine from the densest cities to the most remote communities and in some very dangerous places.’
The GPEI strategy is focused on going beyond the ‘two drops,’ however. The polio workforce and infrastructure are also used to deliver other important health services to children, including routine immunisation, birth registration and handwashing promotion. These integrated interventions help to build trust in communities.
Reaching ‘zero dose’ children
Dr Seth Berkely, CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, noted that the polio programme is also essential for reaching ‘zero dose’ children – those in the roughly 10 per cent of families globally who have been left out of routine immunisation programmes. ‘The polio programme has been brilliant in finding families,’ he said. By joining forces, it has been possible to bring families that have been left out into the system and to give them routine vaccines. ‘This is ultimately the way we will make the most difference to the population and to help communities see reductions in all diseases, and not just polio.’
Strengthening defences against future health threats
Investments in the global fight against polio also help to strengthen country health systems and prepare them to respond to emerging health threats. ‘The polio programme plays a vital role in disease surveillance, community engagement, public health communication and vaccine roll-out,’ said Dr Rochelle Walensky, the director of the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She mentioned the programme’s long history in supporting other health crises, including the response to COVID-19 across Africa, as well as in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and its essential contribution to ending Ebola transmission in Lagos, Nigeria in 2014. ‘Sustaining polio efforts and achieving transmission control and eradication is essential to enhancing global health security,’ she noted.
Renewed commitment comes at a pivotal moment
While the end of polio may be in sight, victory is not guaranteed. The global fight against polio finds itself at a pivotal moment. The COVID-19 pandemic has set back routine vaccination efforts in many countries and the politicisation of vaccinations is leading to pockets of low immunity where vaccine-derived cases of polio can spread. Recently detected cases in Israel, Ukraine and the United States underscore that the virus remains a threat even in countries long declared polio-free.
Over the coming years partners of the GPEI will continue to work with donors, governments and other key stakeholders to ensure that the US$4.8 billion that is required to fully implement the 2022-2026 Strategy is mobilised. This investment will prevent the resurgence of tens of thousands of new polio cases every year, and could save the world over US$30 billion this century, compared to the cost of controlling polio.
Dr Tedros urged donors and partners around the world to ‘be part of history’ by contributing to the US$4.8 billion target. In doing so, he mentioned the statue commemorating smallpox which stands outside the WHO headquarters in Geneva. ‘I like statues,’ Dr Tedros said quietly. ‘I want to add to our collection. And I believe we can do it together.’