On the 25th of May, the World Health Assembly declared polio a programmatic emergency for global public health. We had a chat with Dr Bruce Aylward, Assistant Director-General at the World Health Organization (WHO), to ask him – what exactly does this mean?
First of all, why now? What makes polio an emergency?
Three things were driving the ministers of health of the world in declaring polio an emergency: first - on a positive note - polio eradication has reached a tipping point. India, the country that was responsible for almost half the world’s cases just two years ago, has now passed an entire year without reporting a case, providing incontrovertible evidence that polio can be eradicated anywhere.
However, and this is the ministers' second point, polio cases unexpectedly - and alarmingly - surged late last year in the three remaining endemic countries, from where it would undoubtedly make a global comeback unless it is completely eradicated.
And third, the ministers saw further evidence that when polio spreads to polio-free places, it is increasingly deadly. In Tajikistan and Congo in 2010, and in China in 2011, polio paralysed adults as well as children in these outbreaks with high fatality rates among the adults, reaching nearly 50% in some of these places. This is on top of other research that has recently shown that if we let this opportunity slip through our fingers, we will soon be seeing more than 200,000 children again being paralysed by polio each year.
That’s not just a number, that’s children’s lives changed forever. Many of them would die. If there was a tsunami coming, with 200,000 children in its path, we would do everything we could to get the children out of harm's way. We need to get those children out of the path of the poliovirus.
This is the emergency: if we don’t successfully eradicate polio now, the consequences will be catastrophic. And the only way to prevent that is to ensure we get the vaccine into the mouths of every child, everywhere.
Why do you think polio eradication is so important?
Ultimately polio eradication is about equity and social justice - it is about reaching every child everywhere with the most basic of health service, and at the same time eliminating an awful disease forever. We have the ability to stop this disease from paralysing hundreds of thousands of children each year. While we’re working towards the end of polio, we’re also strengthening health systems in the process. We’re showing that every child, no matter who and no matter where, can be reached with a health service. And once we’ve succeeded, no child will ever be paralysed by polio again.
What does the Global Polio Eradication Initiative need from the world to succeed?
Commitment and money! As public health practitioners and as parents, we believe that every child deserves to be protected from this preventable disease. And we believe that because eradicating polio is something that benefits us all - in perpetuity - we all share in the responsibility to make that happen.
Continued political support and advocacy is important, but words are not enough. We need governments to make sure they do everything possible to help us finish off the final 1% of polio in the world. We need them to provide support to those governments who are still struggling with the virus and to provide the polio partnership with the funds needed to get the polio vaccine to children everywhere, including the most remote, dangerous and difficult places in the world. We need governments to treat the polio funding gap of US$950 million as an emergency so that we don't have to deny children this vaccine.
How can ordinary people help?
The first thing you can do is to sign the petition to let world leaders know that you want them to make good on their promises to get polio finished. Presidents and prime ministers are, after all, answerable to their constituents. Follow The End of Polio on Twitter and Facebook to find out about other simple actions you can take. Then, if you want to get further involved, you can join your local Rotary club. Rotary International is a fantastic organisation – it was a couple of Rotarians that started the whole global movement to eradicate polio and they continue to campaign, raise money and volunteer in polio-infected countries today. You can also donate
You can make a difference. It is everyone’s responsibility to see polio eradicated. Once we do, we will have achieved something extraordinary for all the world’s children, forever.
Watch Dr Aylward’s TED Talk on polio here.
You can read an extended version of this interview here, on the End of Polio website.