Don’t be alarmed—we’re more or less safe here in Europe, for now—but polio has been making headlines again. Several health care workers have recently been killed in attacks on polio vaccination teams trying to reach the tribal areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan, which is where most cases of polio have occurred in recent years. Meanwhile, not too far away, polio is threatening to make a comeback here in Europe, where more than 12 million children are not vaccinated against the virus.
While the international community remains focused on making polio the second disease—after smallpox—to be eradicated by humans, the recent news raises doubts about whether the final push toward eradication will be easy, or even possible.
Despite campaigns to defeat polio throughout much of the world, the disease remains endemic in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria. What do these three countries have in common? According to a final project presented in the ISGlobal–University of Barcelona Master of Global Health, they have similarly unstable conditions in the areas where polio is most common. Security concerns have hampered efforts to deliver vaccines, and a mixture of religious influences, traditions and tribal cultures has fostered the belief that polio vaccination campaigns are a pretext to sterilise the population or gather intelligence. These beliefs were bolstered by reports that the United States had collected blood samples in order to confirm Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts through DNA testing.
Polio is a metaphor for progress in global health. Countless stakeholders have coordinated their efforts in the quest to eradicate the disease. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has financed eradication efforts and supported Rotary International’s longstanding campaign against polio. In the late 1990s, new organisations such as the GAVI Alliance began working to accelerate access to polio vaccines, while local and international organisations such as UNICEF started rolling out vaccination campaigns targeting every corner of the world.
However, the recent news suggests that a happy ending is unlikely, at least in the short term.
Europe, like much of the world, has relaxed its vaccination efforts. Today, polio only affects small pockets of the population. But in a globalised world where contact between people from different continents is commonplace, we cannot rule out a resurgence. The virus has taken refuge in places where instability and poor hygiene conditions have a devastating effect on public health. Multiple cases have already been seen this year in Syria, which had eliminated the disease long ago. The Syrian outbreak clearly poses the greatest threat to Europe. We feel so safe here that some of us choose not to vaccinate our children. And yet, polio is rearing its head right in our backyard. This is why eradicating the disease—or at least controlling it—is so important.
Non-State Actors & Global Health. Eradicating Polio in Pakistan