Earlier this year, I made my first trip ever to Pakistan to learn more about the country’s incredible efforts to wipe out polio.
At the time of my visit in February, Pakistan had gone more than a year without a single child being paralyzed by the crippling disease. This was a huge achievement made possible by the skill and dedication of the polio program’s leadership and its more than 300,000 polio workers. Their energy and enthusiasm reminded me of what I saw in India and Nigeria when those countries were traveling the final mile to eliminate polio within their borders.
But the last mile is often the toughest. The gains made against this highly contagious disease are often fragile.
In recent weeks, the world received a sobering reminder of this fact when three new cases of wild poliovirus were detected in Pakistan: 12 and 15-month-old boys, and a two-year-old girl all living in the same district in Khyber Pukhtunkhwa Province, Pakistan, near the border with Afghanistan. (Pakistan and Afghanistan are the only two countries where the wild poliovirus has not been eliminated.)
It is heartbreaking to see these three children paralyzed by a preventable virus that has been eliminated in nearly every part of the world. (The government of Pakistan is providing rehabilitation services and other support to help the children and their families.)
At the same time, the emergence of these new cases was not entirely unexpected given the challenges of wiping out the virus in one of the most challenging places on Earth. The border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the cases were detected, struggles with insecurity and misinformation that can sometimes prevent vaccinators from reaching every child who needs the polio vaccine.
When I learned about the new cases, I was disappointed. But I was also heartened by the response of Pakistan’s polio program. Despite having every reason to be frustrated, Dr. Shahzad Baig, who runs Pakistan’s National Emergency Operations Center for polio, said his team was not deterred. “This strengthens our resolve to reach every child with the polio vaccine,” he said.
After what I saw during my visit to Pakistan, I shouldn’t have been surprised by the team’s unfailing confidence. The polio workers are driven and detail oriented. They understand that running effective polio vaccination drives is not about getting one thing right. It’s about getting everything right that’s necessary to ensure all children get vaccinated.
In Pakistan, that has meant training 300,000 frontline workers who walk from house to house to vaccinate over 43 million children under the age of five; creating detailed maps for those teams to use to ensure no child is missed; running public information campaigns to inform communities about the risks of polio and the benefits of vaccination; organizing security to protect vaccinators; and building strong supply chains so vaccines are available across the country.
In between vaccination drives, Pakistan’s polio surveillance workers are constantly hunting for signs of acute flaccid paralysis in children and testing the environment for the presence of the virus. Pakistan currently has the largest environmental surveillance network in the world. From tiny villages to larger cities and urban areas, Pakistan’s system has the capacity to find the poliovirus wherever it exists.
The nerve center for all this work is the National Polio Emergency Operations Center, which was a highlight of my visit. A wall of screens in a control room displayed real-time information about vaccinations, security, and supplies, as well as detailed maps following the movements of polio workers. This data helps the team see where they need to make improvements to the vaccination programs to ensure they reach all the children. You probably know I have an insatiable appetite for data, especially health data. So, it should be no surprise I lingered here for longer than planned to look at all the information and learn from the polio experts who are as passionate about data as I am.
What was also remarkable to see is how Pakistan has continued to build community support for its polio activities by integrating them with other essential health programs, like routine immunization programs. During the pandemic, polio workers used their deep knowledge of local communities to reach out to families to raise awareness of COVID-19, teach them how to protect themselves with handwashing and mask wearing, and encourage people to get vaccinated.
Polio workers constantly battle rumors and misinformation about the polio vaccines. But by engaging openly with the public’s questions they’re making headway against this challenge.
I got a glimpse of part of this effort at a national immunization call center where doctors and other health workers respond to tens of thousands of queries every month from the public about immunization, including polio. If families hear a rumor about the polio vaccine, they can call for free and ask about it. Pakistan has reduced the number of vaccine refusals and I believe that the work of this call center is one of the key reasons why. The call center was set up to support polio inquiries, but due to the success of the program, the call center expanded its services to answer questions about COVID-19 vaccines and all other vaccines.
Pakistan’s polio effort also benefits from the strong support it receives from the very top of its government. I recently had an opportunity to speak with Pakistan’s new Prime Minister, Shehbaz Sharif, and it was clear that his administration is actively engaged in stopping transmission for good.
Even with the three new polio cases in Pakistan, the virus is still circulating at very low levels and the world has an historic opportunity to make sure this virus never paralyzes a child again. The fact is, we’ve never been closer to ending polio and it’s critical that the world doesn’t lose sight of this goal.
The last mile to end polio, of course, will be challenging. And that’s why it’s important that the world keep up its support for the polio programs in Pakistan and Afghanistan, so they don’t travel it alone.
I look forward to keeping you posted on their progress in the months ahead.