Mobilizing Political Leadership to End Polio

OLP Summit. Image source: ACTION

By Heather Teixeira, Senior Associate for Child Health and Vaccines.

The world has never been closer to ending the scourge of polio, which once ran rampant in nearly every country and killed or paralyzed hundreds of thousands of people every year. With endemic polio cases remaining in only two countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the lowest number of cases ever happening this year, mobilizing leaders and maintaining the political will to end polio now is more important than ever.

That’s why, earlier this month, the ACTION global health advocacy partnership, through RESULTS UK, RESULTS Canada, RESULTS Japan, RESULTS Australia, the ACTION Secretariat, Aequitas Consulting, and Global Health Advocates India, took parliamentarians from the United Kingdom, Canada, and Japan to India to view its remarkably successful and extensive polio eradication program. We brought the Honorable Andrea Jenkyns MP (UK), the Honorable Toshiko Abe MP (Japan), and the Honorable Sonia Sidhu MP (Canada) for a whirlwind tour of the different components of India’s program- from large scale tertiary hospitals to health clinics and meetings with social mobilizers out in the community. We were fortunate to be accompanied by Nicole Deutsch, UNICEF’s Polio Chief in India, and to receive presentations from excellent WHO technical staff.

We met volunteers who are personally responsible for tracking the immunization statuses of hundreds of households; we viewed the chalk markings left by polio workers on the doorways of Uttar Pradesh, once home to over 50% of the world’s total polio cases; we spoke with the religious and community leaders whose strong support has made polio’s eradication possible in India. We saw clearly the impacts of India’s polio eradication program, which extend far beyond polio. The polio eradication program has in particular increased India’s coverage of routine immunizations, allowing more children to access life-saving vaccines. The program has increased the acceptability of immunizations including and extending beyond the polio vaccine, and is producing a healthier generation of children.

The lessons we learned are clear. India’s success can be, and must be, the world’s success. This remarkable success in eradicating polio has been made possible only by strong political support within India, and through the technical and financial support of partners around the world. Maintaining the political will to end polio is critical, but the fight won’t stop there. As the world nears the final and full eradication of polio, countries with strong polio eradication programs will need to work to ensure all of the resources, human, financial, and physical, that make up the polio program, can be sustainably transitioned into country’s health systems. The programs currently operating should be utilized, where appropriate, to continue to expand access to routine immunizations and to support other aspects of the health system.

At the end of our parliamentary delegation, the visiting MPs met with Indian MPs and a representative from the Pakistan High Commission at a half day summit to discuss the polio eradication program and everything we had seen and learned during the trip. Through a vibrant and rich discussion, all the MPs present affirmed their commitment to both ending polio globally and to the successful transition of polio programs into health systems by signing the One Last Push Declaration, which declares:

1. That every human being deserves to live a life free from polio.

2. That polio can be eradicated from the world.

3. That vaccination programs constitute a blueprint for cost-effective, targeted and outcomes-driven international public health interventions for polio and other infectious diseases.

4. That the global public health effort to eradicate polio – an effort that is both historic and momentous in scale, covering the better part of a century – must be seen through to completion until every child is free from the risk of contracting polio and every country is certified polio-free.

5. That polio, though its global burden is smaller than ever before, represents a continual threat to the health and wellbeing of all people until it is eradicated from the world.

6. That the gains made to eradicate polio must be safeguarded through continued engagement between stakeholders including governments and civil society around the world.

7. That the large-scale global investment in polio eradication, manifest currently in infrastructure, trained personnel, and equipment, must be responsibly transitioned into other global health programs or individual countries’ health systems.

All children deserve to live free from the threat of polio, and it’s clear that maintaining the political will that has allowed us to come so far is key to finally eradicating polio. This World Immunization Week, let’s all throw our shoulders into the effort to eradicate polio, and utilize the tremendous effort that has allowed us to hover on the verge of eradication to support expansion of routine immunization services for all children.

This blog was also published by ACTION Global Health Advocacy Partnership.

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