20th Anniversary of Australia’s Polio Eradication Highlights Decades of Progress and Current Challenges
As we approach World Polio Day this Saturday, 24 October and Australia’s twenty-year anniversary of being declared polio free on Thursday 29 October, the international community celebrates the incredible progress the world has made towards polio eradication – reducing global polio cases by 99.9% in the last 30 years, and saving millions of lives, dollars and public health resources in the process.
Global health leaders have indicated that worldwide polio eradication is now at its final stages, a milestone that would see polio become only the second disease in history – behind smallpox in 1980 – to be globally eradicated.
The last remaining steps, however, are proving the most difficult. The events of 2020 have seen global polio resources diverted in more than 55 countries to control the spread of COVID-19 in the developing world, including in Papua New Guinea and other Asia Pacific nations.
While these measures have been crucial in protecting millions of vulnerable people from COVID-19, they have taken a toll on polio eradication programs, which have slowed or paused as a result. COVID-related disruptions have not only driven up costs for the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) – the partnership that leads polio eradication efforts worldwide, but they have also seen polio transmission begin to rise again, leaving at least 80 million children under the age of one at risk of contracting polio.
International advocacy organisations including Global Citizen, World Health Organisation (WHO), Results Australia, Polio Australia, UNICEF Australia and Rotary International through their End Polio Now campaign have joined together to ask the Australian Government for critical funding to help support final-stage global polio eradication efforts before it is too late.
“This terrible disease is finally on the brink of worldwide eradication, but we can’t afford to let up now. We are in a time-critical race to end polio once and for all – and our challenges in getting over the line only increase the longer that polio continues to circulate alongside COVID-19,” said Sarah Meredith, Global Citizen Country Director (Australia).
Fight to end polio at a critical juncture as COVID-19 creates major funding gap
Global Citizen and partners have said the fight to end polio globally is at a critical juncture, with decades of strong progress at risk if we fail to stamp out the disease now – once and for all – while we have the chance.
“Just like COVID-19, while polio remains a threat anywhere, it is a threat everywhere. Unless completely eradicated, polio can always return to Australia and anywhere else in the world. We need every last child worldwide to be vaccinated in order to get the job done,” Meredith said.
Global Citizen and WHO have flagged a 2021 budget shortfall of up to USD $890 million facing the GPEI, citing the impacts that COVID-19 has had on global polio eradication programs.
“The measures being taken to combat the pandemic in many countries, including social distancing, limits on the size of gatherings, and movement restrictions, have presented new challenges and additional costs for the GPEI, both in terms of keeping frontline workers safe and also ensuring that polio eradication activities do not contribute to further spread of COVID-19,” said Chris Maher,Senior Advisor to the Director General, World Health Organisation (WHO).
“At the same time, the decades of experience, and the resources and infrastructure of the GPEI are now being used by national governments to help address the challenges of COVID-19 in multiple ways, including crisis response, risk communications, and disease surveillance – and there will be further opportunities to capitalize on the assets of the GPEI,”Maher added.
GPEI setbacks come at final stages of three-decade mission
The challenges for the GPEI’s mission come at a time when the world has never been closer to polio-free. Global polio cases have decreased by 99.9% over the past 30 years, from an estimated 350,000 annual cases in 1988 to just over 100 reported cases this year in two polio-endemic countries: Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Less than two months ago, despite and amidst a global pandemic, the Africa Regional Certification Commission certified that the WHO African Region is now wild polio-free, meaning that five of the six WHO regions – which represent over 90% of the world’s population – are free of the wild poliovirus.
In contrast, at its peak in the 1940s and 1950s, polio tore through global communities – taking more than half a million lives per year and causing paralysis among millions of others, including children. Without a vaccine and the GPEI program alongside it, these numbers would have snowballed into a global pandemic – much like COVID-19 today.
It is estimated that the GPEI and partners have saved more than 16 million people globally from being paralysed for life – and an additional 1.5 million from losing their lives.
Failure to eradicate polio could herald global return – costing countless lives, billions in savings and decades of progress.
Despite polio now being on the cusp of global eradication, experts say the final steps are the most challenging, particularly with continuing outbreaks of circulating vaccine-derived polio (cVDPV) and disruptions created by COVID-19.
To finish the mission, the GPEI needs to vaccinate over 400 million children across more than 50 countries every year, as well as conducting disease surveillance in over 70 countries.
The GPEI warns that failure to eradicate polio from the last remaining strongholds could result in as many as 200,000 new cases globally every year, within 10 years.
The world could also risk losing between US $40-$50 billion in estimated savings that polio eradication would generate by 2035, funds which could be used to address other public health needs, including preventing future global epidemics and pandemics.
Australia’s role to play in helping the GPEI cross the finish line.
Australia has a long and proud history of catalysing the world to act on polio, which continues today.
It was an Australian Rotarian, Sir Clem Renouf who, in 1985, inspired Rotary International to focus its global grassroots reach to fundraise and advocate for polio. The passing of Sir Clem just a few months ago, aged 99, has provided fresh motivation to continue his legacy and finish the mission he started more than three decades ago.
The Australian Government has invested almost $100 million in the GPEI in recognition that investment in health security always provides a better return. WHO estimates the benefit of a continued AUD $15 million per year contribution would see 11.5 million children, nearly half the population of Australia, fully immunised against polio.
Last year, the Australian Government made a further $15 million commitment to the GPEI – however, Global Citizen and its advocacy partners have asked the Morrison Government to pledge an additional, supplementary, contribution to the GPEI of at least AUD $10 million to address the significant challenges COVID-19 presents to global polio eradication.
Australian Foreign Minister, Senator the Hon Marise Payne was also appointed the first-ever Polio Gender Champion as part of last year’s commitment, recognising the importance of gender-responsive eradication efforts across the world.