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Will 2018 See the End of Polio? Public Health Watch Report

Could 2018 finally be the year polio is eliminated as a global health concern?

Could 2018 finally be the year polio is eliminated as a global health concern?

Since launching its anti-polio campaign, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), in 1979, Rotary International, along with partners such as the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has, according to its own figures, reduced the number of cases of the infectious disease worldwide by 99.9%. Members of the charitable community organization, once famous for its pancake breakfasts in small towns across America, have helped finance provision of the polio vaccine to 2.5 billion children in 122 countries.

But will it be enough to render an end to the disease?

It certainly seems so. As noted in a December 17, 2017, report by NBC News, there were only 37 cases of polio reported in 2016—and all were in 2 countries: Pakistan and Afghanistan. According to NBC, UNICEF has partnered with a local entertainment group, the Afghan Mini Mobile Circus, to educate mothers and their children about the dangers of polio and the importance of vaccination. The plan is to provide monthly vaccine doses before and after performances.

However, although the stated goal of the organizations engaged in the fight has been to bring the total global cases to 0 by the end of 2018, not all of the news regarding polio has been good. Indeed, as reported by The New York Times last June 2017, 17 children were left paralyzed in Syria as a result of the disease. At issue, of course, is access to the vaccine. According to NBC News, the WHO has linked the outbreak in Syria to the polio strain previously identified in Pakistan.

And, according to Relief Web, countries such as South Sudan, which has been considered polio-free since 2009, are still considered at risk for an outbreak due to factors such as “insecurity [and] population movement,” among others.

Still, that the global health leaders are even able to mention the words “polio” and “eradication” in the same breath is remarkable—and that it could happen within the coming year is even more so. Can lessons be drawn from the anti-polio fight for other public health crises?

Experts think so. Thanks to a grant from the Gates Foundation, clinicians from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, under the leadership of Olakunle O. Alonge, MD, assistant professor of international health, “will collaborate with a global team from public health institutions in… Nigeria, India, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Bangladesh, and Indonesia… to document lessons and develop graduate-level courses and hands-on training clinics for public health students and professionals, including an online open course available to the public and implementation courses for managers from other health programs.”

In a statement on the Gates funding, Dr. Alonge said he hopes the program will provide valuable feedback on “immunization systems, public health emergency response, primary health care, disease eradication and infectious diseases.”

He added, “Without an active strategy to map, package and deliver the knowledge from the global polio eradication efforts to other programs and global health actors, I’m afraid that these knowledge assets may not find any useful purpose beyond the end of the polio campaign, which could come to an end within a few years.”

Talk about a lost opportunity. Here’s hoping the legacy of polio eradication long outlives memories of the accomplishment.

Brian P. Dunleavy is a medical writer and editor based in New York. His work has appeared in numerous health care-related publications. He is the former editor of Infectious Disease Special Edition.