As we begin another year in the battle against polio, I am optimistic that eliminating this disease from the face of the planet is within our reach. Over the last 30 years, global health efforts have pushed polio to the brink, reducing its prevalence by 99 percent. Thanks to these efforts, the disease remains endemic in only a handful of countries, yet steep challenges remain as we work toward eradication.
Within four countries—India, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan—polio has proven to be a persistent foe, continuing to paralyze and take the lives of young children despite our best efforts. And as long as the disease remains, so does the threat of outbreaks, which can quickly spread across continents.
Just last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported an outbreak of poliovirus—imported from India—in Tajikistan, a country that had been certified polio-free since 2002. A similar Indian strain caused 201 cases of paralysis and 104 deaths in the Congo, causing health officials to scramble to revaccinate the entire population. Similar outbreaks occurred last year in Russia, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan.
In the 1980s, we faced similar challenges in eradicating polio from the Americas, as I led the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) efforts to eliminate the disease from the Western Hemisphere. Two years into the program, regional polio prevalence had been reduced to near zero, but the disease remained a constant throughout low-income urban neighborhoods in 10 countries.
Rather than considering the disease contained, however, we intensified our efforts, launching a house-to-house vaccination campaign called “Operation Mop-Up,” during which we mobilized thousands of health workers to provide door-to-door vaccinations for children under five in the affected areas. Without a proper cold chain in many neighborhoods, vaccines were kept cold by the generosity of local residents opening their hearts and kitchen freezers.
A year later, polio cases in our targeted cities dropped by 60 percent. The second year of our effort brought an additional 80 percent reduction in remaining cases, with prevalence continuing to drop until the very last case was diagnosed in 1991 in Pichinaki, Peru.
Thanks to PAHO’s persistence, a disease that had caused some 15,000 cases of paralysis and 1,750 deaths each year in Latin America and the Caribbean was completely eliminated there.
Our efforts more than 20 years ago are proof that success is not out of reach. Everything we need is in place: the vaccines, the quick and reliable polio laboratory testing, the surveillance measures, the trained health workers, and the commitment of global leaders.
Together, we must put these resources to bear where they are needed the most, and in doing so we can ensure that polio can finally be eliminated. To do so is more than an opportunity. It is our responsibility to future generations.