Despite the Covid pandemic, there have been just two recorded cases of wild polio in 2021 – in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the two remaining hiding places for the disease. But eradication is not guaranteed. Polio is virulent and spreads quickly. Even one case poses a threat to unvaccinated children everywhere, which is why a new strategy launched last week by the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) outlines a plan to utilise this small window of opportunity for the world to end polio for good.
A 99.9% fall in polio cases globally in recent decades is thanks in large part to the GPEI and its supporters. The British government’s recent announcement that it will slash its contributions to the GPEI by more than 95% has been a body blow. The funding cut amounts to almost a quarter of the annual World Health Organization polio eradication budget.
When I contracted polio in the early 1970s, I was one of hundreds of thousands of children paralysed by this vaccine-preventable disease every year. Britain can be proud that it has helped to ensure that more than 19 million people are walking today who would otherwise have been paralysed by polio. It helped the entire African continent officially eradicate the wild poliovirus last year.
Covid has decimated already weak health systems around the world and has left more children vulnerable to vaccine-preventable diseases such as polio. For the UK to now turn its back on those it has championed for so long, is the wrong decision at the wrong time.
The GPEI is confronting the final and toughest stretch of eradication. As well as wild polio transmission continuing in two countries, outbreaks of a non-wild form of polio, cVDPV, are spreading in under-immunised communities across parts of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. The Covid pandemic, which led to a temporary pause in eradication activities last year, has aggravated these challenges and the British funding cuts will severely undermine efforts to overcome them.
With the launch of its five-year strategy, the GPEI is on the path to achieving a polio-free world, and the UK still has an opportunity to be a part of it. The plan will see greater emphasis on partnering with communities at high risk to increase vaccine acceptance, and integrating polio activities with essential health services so the programme delivers broader benefits to affected communities.
Like the extraordinary global collaboration to develop multiple Covid-19 vaccines in the past year, the GPEI and its partners have also been at the cutting edge of vaccine innovation. The new programme will broaden the use of a next-generation vaccine – nOPV2 – that began rollout this year and could help stop outbreaks of type 2 cVDPV more sustainably.
We’ve come so far against polio and there is a clear plan to get over the finish line, which should be reason enough to fully support eradication. But an investment in polio goes beyond just tackling this disease.
The GPEI and its infrastructure is key to keeping the world – and the UK – safe from emerging disease threats. Its vast surveillance system and frontline workers have helped detect and respond to outbreaks including measles, yellow fever, Ebola and avian flu. Last year, the programme refocused its resources and 30,000 workers to urgently respond to the Covid pandemic through test and trace, public health messaging and community engagement.
The pandemic has shown how quickly a new disease can spread across the world. If Britain is serious about improving global health security, which would also benefit its own population, then it must continue to support GPEI infrastructure.
Britain has a historic opportunity to help make polio the second human disease eradicated after smallpox and show its leadership in global health. Now is the time to step up. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that while there is virus circulating anywhere, an exponential outbreak always remains on the cards.
Anne Wafula Strike MBE is a British Paralympian, a disability and inclusion campaigner and a sporting ambassador