Polio eradication is one of the most ambitious public health initiatives undertaken in human history. Launched in 1988 by the World Health Organization (WHO) the campaign aimed to rid the world of the virus by 2000. But 30 years on and $15 billion later, even though polio cases worldwide have been reduced by 99%, there are still isolated pockets of the disease. And unless every last case is removed, there will always a chance that the infection will come back.
Encouraged by the eradication of small pox, WHO launched the campaign in 1988. The organisation debated the wisdom of spending so much time and money to exterminate a disease when there were many other more pressing health concerns like malaria, TB or diarrhoea that kill many more people.
Thomas Abraham, a journalist who taught health reporting at the University of Hong Kong, has tried to answer this and other questions in his new book Polio: The Odyssey of Eradication. He says polio was held hostage by geopolitics, and traces the reason why countries opted for a weak vaccine against a strong virus. The author concludes that future global campaigns that zero in on just one disease must be weighed against the necessity of upgrading public health, especially in poorer countries.
In Nepal, indigenous polio was eliminated in 2000 after the country responded to WHO’s eradication goal by adding polio to its successful campaign of vaccination against other diseases. However, there were still polio cases in Nepal brought over the border from India. The last case of polio was detected in Rautahat district in 2010, and Nepal was finally declared polio free four years later.
In response to a query from Nepali Times this week, however, Abraham said Nepal is not out of the woods yet. “If polio re-emerges in India, particularly UP and Bihar, this would be a major challenge to Nepal,” he said. “Also, if levels of routine childhood immunisation fall in Nepal there is a danger of outbreaks of vaccine derived polio, as we are seeing in a number of countries.”
Even though polio has been largely removed, there are still cases in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria where vaccination campaigns have been thwarted by religious extremists. Ironically, enmity between India and Pakistan and the heavily guarded border between the two countries has minimised the risk of polio spreading via India to Nepal.
Polio derived from oral vaccines has emerged as a new threat to the eradication campaign. By 2016, WHO deployed a combination of Inactivated Polio Virus (Salk vaccine) and bivalent oral vaccine to prevent further outbreaks.
“Routine immunisation levels need to remain high in order to maintain Nepal’s polio-free status. Luckily, we have a strong disease surveillance system to detect any new polio cases,” said Jhalak Sharma Gautam of the Department of Health Services.
Polio is one of the oldest diseases to afflict humans, but it wasn’t until the beginning of 20thcentury that there were outbreaks in Europe, North America and Australia. US President Franklin D Roosevelt was paralysed by poliomyelitis, and because of this the US threw considerable political influence and funds to back polio vaccine research.
The first was the Salk vaccine that used inactivated poliovirus, and protected individuals injected with right dose, but it did not stop the transfer of the disease. The Sabin vaccine in 1961 employed a weakened poliovirus to be administered orally. It was cheaper and easier to use and protected individuals from paralysis as well as stopped polio transmission, which eventually led to it being chosen as a tool of eradication.
Despite its success, the Global Polio Eradication campaign has been criticised for its huge cost and for widening the gap between local health needs and global health programs. In his book, Abraham puts his experience as a foreign correspondent to good use by visiting the frontlines of the battle against polio in Pakistan, India and Nigeria. He writes about the assassinations of polio vaccinators in Pakistan and Afghanistan by the Taliban.
A considerable portion of the book deals with a long-standing debate about whether targeting a single disease for eradication should take precedence over strengthening national health systems. This resonates with WHO’s own reluctance to endorse polio eradication for a long time in favour of a strong primary health care system.
This book is a recommended read for public health professionals, but it has lessons for anyone who wants to better understand the inner workings of health systems, donor agency priorities, and what goes on behind the scenes in Geneva.
Abraham is neither an epidemiologist nor a medical practitioner, he is a journalist with over 25 years of experience covering conflict, politics and health. Maybe that is why the book reads more like a thriller with an engaging real-life account of what goes right (and what can go wrong) in the fight against a disease-causing pathogen.
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Sonia Awale is Executive Editor of Nepali Times where she also serves as the health, science and environment correspondent. She has extensively covered the climate crisis, disaster preparedness, development and public health -- looking at their political and economic interlinkages. Sonia is a graduate of public health, and has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Hong Kong.