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October 24, 2020

Polio eradication must remain a priority in Pakistan

Lahore

October 24, 2020

Trustee for the Rotary Foundation and Pakistan National Polio Plus Committee

October 24 is the World Polio Day, a time to reflect on the progress made in the fight to eradicate polio and discuss the action the world needs to take in order to end polio for good. Over the last three decades, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI)- a unique public-private partnership comprising national governments, Rotary International, World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance - has made incredible progress toward the eradication of polio. In 1988, there were 350,000 annual cases of wild polio from 125 countries. In 2020, wild polio continues to circulate in just two countries: Pakistan and Afghanistan. Last year on the World Polio Day, the GPEI announced the eradication of wild poliovirus type 3, leaving just one strain of wild polio that continues to paralyse children. Despite this incredible progress, several serious issues are affecting the eradication efforts; full commitment from governments, donors, Rotary members and partners is needed in order to overcome the remaining hurdles. In 2019, Pakistan experienced a sharp increase in both the number of cases and the geographic spread of the virus due to insecurity, poor immunisation campaign quality and vaccine refusals arising from misinformation and community fatigue. In Afghanistan, the Taliban’s ongoing ban on house-to-house vaccination continues to prevent polio vaccinators from reaching nearly 4 million of the 10 million children under the age of five in the country. Additionally, outbreaks of type 2 circulating vaccine- derived poliovirus (cVDPV2) - which reflect low levels of routine immunization) - spread to more countries across Africa, Southeast Asia and the Middle East. As the world responds to COVID- 19, there is a significant risk that many children will miss out on lifesaving vaccines that prevent dangerous diseases, including polio. In March all countries were advised to temporarily pause polio immunisation campaigns in response to the COVID- 19 outbreak. In July 2020, many countries, including Pakistan and Afghanistan, began resuming immunisations, while following strict safety measures to protect health workers and communities. Following the pause on polio immunisation activities, Pakistan’s first polio National Immunisation Days (NIDs) were scheduled from September 21st to 27th. This nationwide campaign targeted 40 million children under the age of five years, using a cadre of almost 270,000 front line workers across the country. Rotary and its partners are playing an important role in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Early this year, the GPEI announced that the extensive polio infrastructure Rotary and its partners built to fight polio would be used to support preparedness and response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In Pakistan, polio staff are tracing contacts and testing for COVID-19, combatting misinformation and sensitising health professionals on the disease. Rotary’s Polio Resource Centers are serving as training centers for GPEI staff working to address both polio and COVID-19, and one of Rotary’s Resource Centers is serving as a COVID-19 testing site. Rotary in Pakistan partnered with Coca-Cola Export Corporation Pakistan to install 12 solar filtration plants in polio super high risk areas. In addition, we have also collaborated with Bank Alfalah in a pilot project, to install hand washing stations in ten prominent hospitals in Karachi, to promote frequent hand washing by children and adults. In August, wild polio was certified as eradicated in theWHO’s African region. This achievement came four years after Nigeria - the last polio-endemic country in Africa - recorded its final detection of the wild poliovirus following decades of effort from Rotary members, GPEI partners, local and national leaders, and health workers throughout the African region. TheWHO’s EasternMediterranean Region (EMRO), which includes Pakistan and Afghanistan, is now the final WHO region that has not yet interrupted the wild poliovirus. World Polio Day is the most important opportunity Rotary has for the world to hear our rallying cry to End Polio Now. Now more than ever, it’s important to remain committed to polio eradication. I call on parents, political leaders, and the public to work together to protect the children of Pakistan from the devastating impact of polio.