The declaration by the World Health Organisation this week that all of Africa is now free of the virus that causes polio marks an important public health milestone in a year that has seen another virus ravage the world. With this, only two countries are still considered polio-afflicted, Pakistan and Afghanistan, where cumulatively 87 cases were recorded last year. WHO has certified that no cases of polio were reported in Africa in the past four years, the threshold for determining that the virus has been eradicated.
The battle against polio, which was joined in 1988 with the WHO, UNICEF and Rotary coming together, has several lessons to offer. At that time, there were as many as 350,000 cases worldwide. It took a huge global effort, massive financial backing ~ an estimated $19 billion ~ and massive efforts by the worst-hit countries over three decades to bring about a transformation. Possibly the most challenging battle was fought in India, which had 60
per cent of the world’s caseload in 2009 but battled all odds to be declared polio-free by 2014. For a variety of reasons, India was considered the most geographically challenging region for polio eradication.
That it shares a border with Pakistan, where eradication efforts were often stymied (and still are) by irrational rumours that administration of the vaccine was part of a Western ploy to cause infertility, or even to spread HIV, did not help. The eradication of polio was possibly the greatest achievement of the UPA-II government which worked with other stakeholders to ensure that the most extensive vaccination drive ever attempted was conducted successfully. If Pakistan and Afghanistan can find the resources and the will to tackle the virus with similar vigour, the world could soon be polio free, consigning this virus to the history books as was done to small-pox in 1980.
While the challenges posed by polio and coronavirus are quite different, a study of the timeline of the battle against the former may offer us insights into what lies ahead in the battle against the latter.
Jonas Salk discovered the polio vaccine in 1955 and 65 years later, the world has just reached the threshold of eradicating the disease. No vaccine has yet been found against Covid, and even if one is identified and certified as safe within the optimistic timeframes that are being bandied about, it will take a monumental effort to ensure that it reaches every citizen of the world.
Along the way to eradication, a Covid vaccine may well confront the stumbling blocks the polio vaccine did, for it is important to recall that within months of its launch it had to be suspended after a vaccinated child was found to have contracted polio. Certainly, the triumph in Africa should remind us that there is no room for short-cuts in the battle against disease.