Pakistan and Afghanistan, the only two countries where polio still paralyzes children, marked World Polio Day (October 24) Sunday amid excitement and hopes that global eradication of the crippling disease is within reach.
The neighboring countries constitute a bloc where the disease has been endemic; but each has detected just one case of wild polio so far this year compared to 53 in Afghanistan and 81 in Pakistan in October 2020. The number of cases so far in 2021 is the lowest in history, according to World Health Organization officials.
A polio vaccination campaign in Pakistan has faced challenges in particular over the past two years — due to vaccine hesitancy and the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to a five-month pause in polio immunization campaigns starting in March of 2020.
"We have reason to be optimistic,” said Aziz Memon of Rotary International, which coordinates a global polio eradication program.
Memon told VOA the declining trend of reported polio cases and negative environmental samples suggest “a positive outlook” for polio eradication in Pakistan and Afghanistan, stressing the need for capitalizing on what he described as an “unprecedented” opportunity to stop wild polio transmission.
“We are currently in the high season for polio transmission in Afghanistan and Pakistan, so it’s never been more important to ensure that polio immunization and surveillance remain a top priority, particularly as the pandemic continues to threaten immunization programs around the world,” he said.
Memon said restrictions on public movement to prevent COVID-19 from spreading was one of the key contributing factors leading to the recent decline in polio cases in Pakistan.
“Inter-city and intra-city public transportation remained suspended across the country during the pandemic lockdowns, which restricted many nomadic families from traveling to other cities in search of job opportunities,” he said.
Memon said the resumption of mass polio vaccination campaigns and the natural immunity induced by the wild polio outbreaks of previous years have also contributed to the current reduction in cases.
The Pakistani government reported earlier this month that its third vaccination campaign of the year in mid-September succeeded in the administering of polio drops to more than 40 million children across the country.
Afghan house-to-house drive
The United Nations last week announced that a house-to-house polio vaccination drive for all children under 5 in Afghanistan will restart on November 8 for the first time in more than three years, now that the conflict-torn country’s new Taliban government has granted approval.
“Given that Pakistan and Afghanistan are a single epidemiological bloc, this represents a great opportunity for both countries to reach even more children with lifesaving polio vaccines,” said Memon, while welcoming the Taliban’s decision to lift the ban on house-to-house polio vaccination.
Rotary’s Global Polio Eradication Initiative was founded in 1988. The program has since reduced infections by more than 99.9 percent worldwide and immunized nearly 3 billion children against polio, preventing more than 19.4 million cases of paralysis. But Rotary officials predict “hundreds of thousands of children could be paralyzed” if polio is not eradicated within 10 years.
International eradicators warn outbreaks of circulating vaccine-derived polioviruses (cVDPVs) also pose a major barrier to achieving a polio-free world, calling for increased vigilance in swiftly addressing it.
The outbreak occurs if not enough children in any given community are vaccinated and the weakened live poliovirus contained in the oral polio vaccine starts to circulate, mutating to a form that can cause paralysis.
“Multiple countries, including Pakistan and Afghanistan, are facing outbreaks of cVDPV type 2, and to address them, a new polio vaccine that carries less risk of changing to a harmful form that could cause paralysis in low-immunity settings has been developed,” Memon said.