In a push toward eradicating polio in Pakistan for good, more than 100,000 healthcare workers descended on the Middle Eastern country earlier this week to help administer polio vaccinations. Pakistan is currently one of only two countries in the world where polio cases still exist, the other being Afghanistan, and it accounts for more than 70 percent of the world’s current cases of the debilitating illness. With the opening of the new immunization clinics, workers are striving to vaccinate every child in the country by May.
Efforts to halt the spread of polio in Pakistan have been an uphill battle and workers have been on the receiving end of numerous death threats by militants. Most recently, a suicide bomber killed at least 15 people outside of an immunization clinic in the city of Quetta earlier this year. However, workers are saying that through community outreach and education that their presence is becoming more accepted by the locals, and that they will continue administering the vaccine.
Starting in April 2016, 155 countries around the world have agreed to switch from one polio vaccine to another in what is being called the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI). Currently these countries use the oral trivalent polio vaccine (OPV), which protects against three types of the virus, but they will be transitioning over to the bivalent version, which blocks two types of polio. Currently the wild form of type 2 of the virus has been eradicated, but there are fears that the live, oral vaccine could mutate and cause reinfection, and switching to the bivalent version could help mitigate this risk.
Although the likelihood of this is exceedingly rare—according to the World Health Organization (WHO), billions of doses of the OPV have been administered between 2000 and 2015 and have resulted in fewer than 760 cases of the vaccine-derived poliovirus—this initiative will help lessen the risk. If successful, the switch will be “one of the most ambitious global synchronized projects in the history of vaccines,” according to the GPEI.
Earlier this month Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, traveled to Africa to meet with Aliko Dangote, Africa’s wealthiest man, alongside the governors of four of the continent’s northern states to discuss a new campaign that would help eradicate polio. Gates, along with many of Africa’s leaders, signed an MOU (Memorandum of Understanding), and are now set to raise childhood vaccination coverage to 80 percent by 2018 in the states of Borno, Yobe, Sokoto, and Kaduna.
In recent years, Africa has taken steps to end the spread of polio, but there is still much work to be done. Mario Mandara of the Gates Foundation says that vaccination rates in some of Africa’s northern states are as low as 30 percent. However, there hasn’t been a new case of wild polio reported in Africa since July 24, 2015 (Nigeria). If the UN World Health Organization (WHO) African Region goes two more years without a new case, the Africa Regional Certification Commission could declare Africa polio free.
On October 22, 2015, Kevin Kimberlin, chairman of Spencer Trask & Co., and Dr. Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs, author of the biography, “Jonas Salk: A Life,” joined together to celebrate the work of the late Jonas Salk, a visionary who discovered and developed the first successful vaccination for polio. It was a filled theater of enthusiastic supporters at the Grand Hyatt in Old Greenwich, CT.
At its peak in the 1940s and ’50s, polio paralyzed or killed more than half a million people worldwide each year. Since the introduction of Salk’s vaccine, cases of the crippling disease fell from 35,000 in 1953 to 5,300 in 1957 in the United States. By 2015, polio remained endemic in only two countries: Pakistan and Afghanistan.
In his speech, Kimberlin said that the World Health Organization (WHO), which has teamed up with UNICEF, Rotary International, the Center for Disease Control (CDC), and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, recently announced that, “by the end of 2015, virtually every nation in the world, 195 out of 196 countries, have agreed to use or are already using the Salk vaccine to completely eradicate polio.” He added that, “the elimination of polio has recently been called the largest ever international mobilization in times of peace.”
He shared with the audience that “As a friend and the co-founder of a company called the Response Corporation, I got to know Jonas very well and I was tremendously inspired every moment of every day that I spent with him.”
Turning the stage over to Jacobs, she added that “Jonas Salk made some of the most major contributions to medicine, not only with his polio vaccine, but with his co-developed, first effective influenza vaccine and was working on an AIDS vaccine when he died.”
Jacobs shared her personal experience, that in 1954, the March of Dimes had selected her hometown of Kingsport, Tennessee, as one of the test sites for the polio vaccine, and she was one of the first children to receive and was dubbed a “polio pioneer.” A year later, it was announced that the vaccine proved effective and that polio could be prevented, making Salk one of the greatest heroes of our time.
For her book, Jacobs conducted more than 100 interviews with Salk’s family members, friends, classmates, and scientists to get an “intimate portrait” of the visionary. She learned that in 1986, a 33-year-old entrepreneur named Kevin Kimberlin gave him a call and told him that he wanted to work with him on the AIDS epidemic. At first Salk was wary, but eventually a friendship blossomed and together they founded the Immune Response Corporation. “I think Kevin shares the key characteristics that made Jonas so successful, and that is idealism, passion, and tenacity,” Jacobs said.
Although we’re closer than ever to eradicating polio for good, there are still challenges ahead…but the fight isn’t over yet.