General Secretary and CEO, Rotary International
What can we learn from our battles against the poliovirus to help our struggle against the coronavirus?
In 1988, polio paralyzed 350,000 children annually in 125 countries. Today, thanks to the efforts of Rotary and its Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) partners, there has been a 99.9 percent reduction in polio cases, and just two countries continue to report cases of wild polio: Afghanistan and Pakistan. About 19 million people who would otherwise be paralyzed are walking today, and 1.5 million deaths have been averted.
As the world endures the COVID-19 pandemic and promising vaccine candidates emerge, we are faced with the herculean task of ensuring that all people, including those in vulnerable communities, are vaccinated. What are the key components of the polio eradication program that can be applied to fighting COVID-19?
Strong partnerships between governments and organizations are vital to fighting a disease. The formation of the GPEI—a public-private partnership between Rotary, WHO, UNICEF, the CDC, the Gates Foundation, GAVI, and governments—ensures diverse input from a variety of organizations with different expertise.
To build trust in vaccines among parents and caregivers and combat misinformation, the polio program engages with local influencers, religious leaders, educators, health institutions, tribal elders and the media. These community-tailored approaches play a critical role in increasing confidence in the polio vaccine and in immunization broadly.
Elements of the polio eradication infrastructure — encompassing laboratories, millions of health workers, and innovative technology — are already being utilized against COVID-19, or will be in the future. For example, the vast polio surveillance network, which detects poliovirus in humans and the environment, is now being used to identify suspected cases of COVID-19. The polio program also developed a cold chain system — made up of freezers, refrigerators, and cold boxes — to store the vaccine and keep it cold as it is transported over long distances, which may be useful in the deployment of a COVID-19 vaccine.
Ending a disease is a tremendous undertaking. But, when governments, multilateral institutions and nonprofits like Rotary mobilize together, nothing is insurmountable. The remarkable progress made in ending polio provides a blueprint for overcoming COVID-19, especially for the distribution and acceptance of an effective vaccine to deliver the long-awaited end to this pandemic.
Rotary is a global network of volunteers dedicated to tackling the world’s most pressing humanitarian challenges, including polio. Learn more at Rotary.org.