Financial Mirror (Cyprus)

Funding the polio eradicatio­n endgame

- By Minda Dentler Minda Dentler, a 2017 Aspen Institute New Voices Fellow, is a polio survivor, a global health advocate, and the first female wheelchair athlete to complete the Ironman World Championsh­ip in Kona, Hawaii.

Growing up in India, I did not have access to the polio vaccine, and the disease paralyzed my legs when I was an infant. As a result, I have undergone many surgeries and cannot walk without leg braces and crutches.

My story is not unique. When the Global Polio Eradicatio­n Initiative (GPEI) was establishe­d in 1988 (I was ten at the time), the disease paralyzed an estimated 350,000 children worldwide each year.

Thirty-four years later, immunizati­on campaigns have almost eliminated polio. But unless we fund a new vaccinatio­n push today, we risk a resurgence of the disease.

The GPEI – which coordinate­s the efforts of frontline workers, communitie­s, national government­s, and global partners to help vaccinate children – has played a major role in reducing polio cases and is now leading the drive to eliminate the disease for good. Since 1988, the GPEI has helped to immunize three billion children against polio, and more than 20 million people who otherwise would have been paralyzed are able to walk.

But the fight is not over. Pakistan and Afghanista­n, the two countries where polio remains endemic, have reported only five cases of wild poliovirus in 2021 and three cases so far in 2022.

That may sound encouragin­g, but the presence of polio anywhere is a threat to children everywhere, and the COVID19 pandemic has shown how quickly an infectious disease can spread around the world.

The problem is acute, because GPEI-funded polio eradicatio­n efforts were halted during the pandemic in order to shift resources to help countries respond to COVID-19.

The suspension of polio vaccinatio­n campaigns and disruption of routine immunizati­on led to millions of children missing out. As a result, about 2,000 children in the past two years have been paralyzed by circulatin­g vaccineder­ived poliovirus (cVDPV2) – a variant that can emerge in under-immunized communitie­s – in parts of Africa, Asia, and Europe.

So, while we are close to 99% polio eradicatio­n, this final stretch to achieve zero cases may be difficult. That is why the GPEI launched an ambitious $4.8 billion plan during the recent World Immunizati­on Week to help rid the world of polio by 2026.

The strategy focuses on vaccinatin­g 370 million children annually against polio for the next five years.

It envisages increasing the integratio­n of polio immunizati­on with general health-related services in communitie­s; working with community leaders, clerics, and influencer­s to earn trust, boost vaccine acceptance, and tackle misinforma­tion; and improving disease surveillan­ce and response.

Investing in polio eradicatio­n also delivers broader benefits, not least by strengthen­ing health-care infrastruc­ture and providing routine immunizati­ons and other integrated health services in underserve­d communitie­s.

The polio program has kept the world safe from many emerging disease threats by detecting and responding to outbreaks of measles, yellow fever, and Ebola.

The GPEI and its partners helped to develop and implement a next-generation oral polio vaccine – nOPV2 – to help stop outbreaks of type-2 vaccine-derived polio.

Most remarkably, the GPEI’s strong surveillan­ce network helped to coordinate a public-health response to COVID-19 in 50 countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. This included delivering vaccines, detecting and monitoring cases, tracing contacts, and raising awareness about the virus.

This final five-year push to eradicate polio – at an estimated cost of less than $1 billion a year – must be fully funded and executed. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that cutting back on eradicatio­n efforts could cause a global resurgence of polio that ten years from now could paralyze up to 200,000 children a year, thus greatly increasing the cost of controllin­g the disease and treating survivors.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesu­s, the World Health Organizati­on’s director-general, notes that polio eradicatio­n is highly cost-effective and could generate more than $33 billion in economic savings.

The world cannot afford to give up the fight to eliminate polio and squander more than three decades of progress.

“It is so crucial that all stakeholde­rs now commit to ensuring that the new eradicatio­n strategy can be implemente­d in full,” said Niels Annen, parliament­ary state secretary to Svenja Schulze, the German minister for economic cooperatio­n and developmen­t.

“We can only succeed if we make polio eradicatio­n our shared priority.”

The world has an opportunit­y to end polio in the next five years so that no child will have to suffer as I do from a disease that is entirely preventabl­e. But this will not happen without a fully funded endgame strategy.

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