Global Polio Eradication Event
Held on March 14th 2023 at The House of Commons
This was organised in association with Conservative Friends of the Commonwealth, led by Rotarian Judith Diment (MBE), and was attended by around 100 people including Rotarians and others interested in the eradication of polio. Club member John Dunkley was one of the Rotarians invited. The speakers were Aiden O’Leary, World Health Organisation Director for Polio Eradication, Rotary International President Jennifer Jones, and the Right Honourable Andrew Mitchell MP, Minister of State at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.
Aiden spoke for about twenty minutes and then answered questions. He gave lots of facts and figures before describing in detail the areas of the world where there are still concerns and how these were being addressed.
He described 2023 as ‘an absolutely critical year.’ He pointed out that there have been no polio outbreaks this year so far in Pakistan or Afghanistan, the only two places where the wild polio virus is endemic. This is set against a backdrop where we have never looked so hard to find the virus. There is still the danger of circulating vaccine derived polio from the oral vaccine; although there have been 15 surveillance samples containing the CVDPV in Afghanistan there have been no cases of infection.
Despite political and security difficulties in the endemic countries, such as dealing with the Taliban, the Word Health Organisation finds ways to continue operating; at present there is a campaign targeting more than 9 million children across Afghanistan. Aiden explained how the WHO contacted the local Taliban leaders to obtain permission to visit children in their areas. This worked very well as they understood how important it was to have their children vaccinated. He also explained how emergency centres worked: these centres have the staff and resources to respond quickly when an outbreak is suspected. Because of the effectiveness of vaccination fewer cases occur which makes it increasingly difficult to track them down.
Vaccinators can be at great risk at times. In answer to a question on support for families of those killed while vaccinating, Aiden said that there was a fund in place to support those families.
Jennifer Jones then gave an inspiring presentation in which she insisted that Rotarians have and will finish the job of eradicating polio and keep to the promise made to the children of the world that this will be achieved. Funding the Global Polio Eradication Initiative to complete the task is a challenge. There is a gap of $2.2 billion needed to immunise 400 million children over the next 3 years.
Jennifer described how she joined a vaccination team in Pakistan. The team members were all women as no men were allowed in houses. One grandmother looking after 8 children offered Jennifer a cup of tea. Seeing the condition of the house with a dirt floor, little sanitation, flies everywhere, even on open wounds, and dubious water supply, Jennifer politely declined.
Jennifer said how proud of these women vaccinators and all that they do. All have mobile phones, not for accessing games or social media, but to track where each had been to ensure that all houses were visited. Paper records were also kept in a ledger. The Polio vaccination system, in many places, has been used for other vaccination programmes such as covid, or for programmes such as maternal and child health, for example.
Andrew Mitchell ended the meeting by explaining how the UK Government had supported the Global Polio Eradication programme in many ways and had given £1.4 billion since 1994. He announced that he had just been appointed as the Government Polio and Equality Gender Champion, so will be in a position to ensure that the giving will continue.