We may be a step closer to wiping polio off the face of the earth. The virus is a scourge that attacks children and causes lifelong paralysis, if not an early death.
Nigeria has not had a case of wild polio since 2016, and Dr. Tanji Funsho, head of Rotary International's National Polio Committee in Nigeria, said he has no doubt his country will succeed in being declared polio free.
"I’m very confident, Funsho said, "because the ingredients are in place. We are reaching more children. The surveillance structure is very robust, and resources are made available to ensure that vaccines that are required get to the children."
Rotary International, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and two UN agencies -- UNICEF and the World Health Organization -- are part of a public/private partnership to end polio. The Global Eradication Initiative to End Polio includes these organizations as well as national governments.
In the 31 years since the launch of this global effort, the number of polio cases has dropped by 99.9%. Instead of hundreds of thousands of children being paralyzed each year, the number stood at 65 as of August 20.
At one time, conflict and concerns about the vaccine in northeastern Nigeria, contributed to low immunity levels. Jay Wenger, director of the polio program at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation said the Nigerian government uses innovative strategies to get to more children. This includes teams that vaccinate children at markets, outreach to nomadic populations, better surveillance and better training for vaccinators.
Carol Pandak, head of Rotary's Polio Plus program, says the number of inaccessible children in Nigeria has been reduced from around 600,000 in 2016 to between 60,000 and 70,000 today. Funsho said that number is not significant because the children are widely spread out they won't cause an outbreak.
At one time, many Nigerians were wary of the polio vaccine, but traditional leaders now support immunizations.
Nigeria wasn't the only place where the polio vaccine has been eyed with skepticism. False rumors in Pakistan led to violent attacks on polio workers earlier this year and a suspension of the immunization program. Vaccinations have since resumed along with better efforts to educate people about the vaccine.
Access to clean water is also a problem. The virus can spread if the water supply is contaminated with raw sewage, as it often is in Pakistan. Dr. Iqbal Memon, part of the Pakistani Polio Eradication Advisory Committee, said in regions with frequent infections and contaminated water, 15 doses of the vaccine is needed for children to be adequately protected.
Cross-border migration between Pakistan and Afghanistan makes it difficult to vaccinate and revaccinate every child, but that issue is now being addressed. Oliver Rosenbauer, spokesman for the WHO Global Polio Eradication Initiative, said both countries are now coordinating dates for vaccination coverage campaigns and sharing surveillance data. And that is having an impact.
Even if Africa achieves a designation of being polio free, Rosenbauer said, “Unless you get to zero cases, because it's such a contagious disease, and an epidemic-prone disease, we run the risk that it will spread again globally.”