SEATTLE, Washington — The Rotary District 1240 club created the Purple Pinkie campaign more than 20 years ago to eradicate polio and has developed into an extremely successful and creative movement for bringing polio immunization to the public’s attention and raising funds. Up until the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the world was likely the closest it has ever been to completely eradicating polio that cripples and sometimes kills children under 5 years of age. However, the strain COVID-19 has put on public health systems has pulled resources away from funding other critical health work, including polio immunization.
The Purple Pinkie campaign involves painting your pinkie purple to match the purple stamp children in developing countries receive on their finger after being immunized. This iconic campaign has helped Rotary vaccinate over 2.5 billion children through their End Polio Now initiative. In conjunction with other organizations, such as the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Center for Disease Control (CDC), which fund and distribute immunization shots, polio was 0.1% away from being eradicated, with just a few lingering cases surviving in impoverished communities.
If successful, polio will become one of two diseases ever eradicated—second to smallpox. On World Polio Day in 2019, the WHO reported there were less than 100 cases of polio left. However, due to the pandemic, millions of children will likely not receive their polio shots in on time, and with infectious diseases, timing is everything. Pakistan alone has experienced approximately 40 new polio cases already this year.
Using Polio as a Model for COVID-19
With a glass half full perspective, countries with polio immunization teams in place are well equipped to handle COVID-19 since polio health officials and labs already have the necessary training to handle an infectious disease.
Moreover, the success experienced on a global scale with eliminating polio can be duplicated for handling the novel coronavirus. Funding, testing and international partnerships are critical. Already, WHO-coordinated polio laboratories (16 labs in 15 countries) have devoted half of its space to COVID-19 testing. Today, the labs in Africa are processing hundreds of COVID-19 tests daily using polio testing machines.
Poverty and Immunization
Diseases like polio and COVID-19 show how interconnected poverty and immunization work are. Countries with infectious diseases such as polio typically have ill-equipped health systems and unstable economies, resulting in a perpetual spread of illness, if not receiving outside humanitarian aid. Impoverished people are usually heavily impacted by diseases since their communities do not have efficient sanitation systems, clean water or adequate nutrition.
For a child currently in poverty, polio immunization can mean the difference between staying in poverty or rising out of it. Moreover, polio-induced paralysis can result in children not returning to school, altering what they can achieve in their adult life.
Other Infectious Diseases
Unfortunately, some developing countries do not just have COVID-19 or polio to worry about, but other diseases and violence and instability resulting from armed conflicts. For instance, the Democratic Republic of Congo faces a rising Ebola epidemic and militant terrorists; Yemen currently battles cholera, a humanitarian crisis and decreased international aid; Honduras suffers from dengue fever and gang violence, and Cambodia faces measles, rubella and pertussis outbreaks.
A few countries continued polio immunization work at a decreased capacity when the pandemic first hit. More countries, such as Ethiopia and Nepal, are restarting their immunization programs in response to the increasing cases of other diseases. The nearly $9 billion funding Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance, received from the Global Vaccine Summit in June 2020 will fund COVID-19 aid in addition to continuing the much-needed immunization work for other diseases. Additional support through the International Affairs Budget will also go a long way in bringing the world closer to diminishing the many infectious diseases on the rise.
Email or call your congressmen today to support the $20 billion International Affairs Budget increase to fight COVID-19 worldwide and help resources for HIV/AIDS, TB, malaria and anti-hunger programs.