This year’s World Polio Day allows us to celebrate the remarkable success achieved as we aim to eradicate the scourge of Polio, but also to recognise the challenges that still remain. Next month, donors from across the world come together to commit money to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), one of the key organisations fighting to eradicate this terrible disease.
Firstly, there is much to celebrate: the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) has reduced the number of polio cases by over 99% since it was formed in 1988. Wild polio is now only circulating in two countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the continent of Africa may soon be certified as wild polio-free. Today, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has formally certified that type 3 polio has also been eradicated, a hugely significant milestone. Polio eradication has a plethora of benefits, and these benefits range from boosting the global economy, right down to an individual experiencing the joy of movement that would otherwise have been denied to them. These remarkable efforts have saved more than $27 billion in health costs since 1988, and 18 million people are able to walk who otherwise would have been left paralysed by the virus.
However, there is much still to do, and these successes should not make anyone complacent. Firstly, cases of circulating vaccine-derived polio, which is genetically mutated from the live but weakened strain contained in the oral polio vaccine, has reached 95 this year, and the GPEI predicts that 15-20 counties also remain at risk of further polio outbreaks. The remaining cases are also often found in areas that are the hardest to reach, and where vaccine hesitancy is on the rise. If efforts slow down now, the world is at risk of a resurgence, and the WHO estimates that failure to eradicate polio in these last remaining areas could result in up to 200,000 new cases globally each year within 10 years. This is why it is so important that the GPEI’s Polio Endgame strategy is fully implemented.
Next month, in the United Arab Emirates, the GPEI will hold its Pledging Moment, and World Polio Day is a crucial moment to build support to successfully raise the $3.27 billion it needs to implement its new strategy. The UK has been a global leader in the fight against polio, and reducing support for the GPEI risks undermining years of progress. It is therefore vital that the UK Government makes an ambitious pledge in November, to ensure that every last child is reached. GPEI itself acknowledges that should the $3.27 billion target not be met, “support to countries that are at higher risk of an outbreak could also see cuts” and warns that its ability to protect children would be damaged.
The essential benefits of eradicating polio are clear to see, but GPEI’s work goes well beyond polio. GPEI’s invests in supporting surveillance systems and routine immunisations as well as providing support during epidemics. Entire immunisation programmes and health systems are at risk of collapse without the support GPEI provides. It is vital that when GPEI’s work winds down, these wider health gains are not lost due to poor transition planning.
As one of the building blocks, or ‘bricks’ in the global health infrastructure, a fully funded GPEI will be vital to accelerating progress on global health. This will require further collaboration with, and ambitious investments in, other multilateral organisations, such as Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance; and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and also investing in nutrition at next year’s Nutrition for Growth summit in Tokyo.
As the eradication of smallpox has shown, ridding the world of an appalling disease is possible. These next four years are absolutely crucial in the pursuit of a polio-free world, and the coming weeks are our opportunity to demonstrate that the political will to achieve this still exists.