Looking back over 2016, I had the opportunity to meet with many gifted individuals trying to change the world.
The world is so close to ending polio.
Since the start of the global eradication effort in 1988, the number of polio cases worldwide has fallen 99.9 percent.
19 million people who would have otherwise been paralyzed are now walking today because of vaccines. And 1.5 million people are alive who would have otherwise died from the disease.
Much of the credit for this progress goes to the thousands of polio workers who have gone door to door vaccinating more than 3 billion children over the last 33 years.
October 24 is World Polio Day and to mark the occasion I’d like to share the story of one of these dedicated polio fighters.
Her name is Shumaila Rehmani.
Shumaila is a polio vaccinator in Pakistan, which is one of the two countries in the world—the other is Afghanistan—where the wild poliovirus is still endemic.
Shumaila’s job is to deliver the polio vaccine to every child under age five in the community she serves. While that probably sounds like a straightforward job, what it takes to get it done is not. Reaching every child requires hard work, meticulous planning, and patience.
During polio immunization drives in Pakistan, Shumaila sets out on foot early in the morning with a cooler filled with vaccines and a detailed plan for all the homes she needs to visit. Then she begins knocking on doors to give the oral polio vaccine drops to every child.
The overwhelming majority of families she visits want their children to be vaccinated. Some parents, however, out of fear or a lack of information, refuse to have their children vaccinated.
But Shumaila doesn’t give up.
She talks with the mothers and fathers, answering all their questions about polio and reassuring them that the vaccine is safe and effective. She also works with community and religious leaders to speak with families about the importance of vaccination.
Progress can be slow. In the community she serves, Shumaila says this year she initially had more than 250 families refuse vaccinations. But today, because of her efforts to work closely with the families, all but four of them have had their children vaccinated. And she continues to talk with those families to encourage them to get vaccinated.
And thanks to the thousands of dedicated health workers like Shumaila and the leadership of Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan, there’s been just one case of wild polio in Pakistan so far this year, compared with 84 in 2020.
While the incredible efforts of Shumaila and other polio fighters have brought us to the brink of a polio-free world, COVID-19 has created new challenges. The pandemic has disrupted polio campaigns and routine immunizations in many parts of the world, causing outbreaks of other forms of polio to crop up in Africa and Asia.
That’s why the global polio program adapted its approach to help contain the spread of COVID-19 while also working to end polio. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative used its workforce and laboratory and disease surveillance network to respond to the pandemic, investigating suspected COVID cases, coordinating response operations, and training health care workers. In Pakistan, the national polio team now operates a toll-free number for anyone who wants to speak with a doctor about COVID, polio, or get any questions answered about routine immunization. They have received more than 17 million calls during the pandemic.
Like other polio workers, Shumaila has used her community relationships to raise awareness of COVID, teach families how to stay safe, and provide handwashing and hygiene lessons. This has made for longer days, but Shumaila says it’s easy to stay motivated. As a mother of three children herself, she is driven by her dream of a day when polio will no longer be a threat to her children or any child in Pakistan.
It’s a day she knows will come soon, she says. Again and again since the start of the global polio eradication effort, one country after the next has eliminated this crippling disease from within their borders. Less than a decade ago, for example, Nigeria accounted for more than half of all wild polio cases worldwide. But last year, Nigeria, along with the 47 countries in the African region, were certified free of the wild poliovirus.
With Afghanistan recently announcing it would conduct a nationwide polio campaign in November—the first in over three years to reach all children in the country—and Pakistan’s continued commitment to eradication, the final two polio endemic countries will hopefully soon follow others on the path to ending wild polio.
“If other countries can be polio free, why can’t Pakistan be?” Shumaila asks.
Want to be a polio hero? This World Polio Day you can support Shumaila and other polio workers by donating to Rotary’s fight against polio. Our foundation is giving a 2-to-1 match to every donation. Learn more: endpol.io/give