SEATTLE, Washington — When COVID-19 emerged in early 2020 and quickly became a global pandemic, the fight against another dangerous disease was on the verge of an important milestone: Africa was expected to be freed of wild poliovirus within the year. Polio is a highly infectious disease that attacks the nervous system and can cause total paralysis within days of infection. It mainly affects children under 5 and can be deadly. As there is no cure, the only way to fight polio is through prevention by vaccinating vulnerable populations. The impressive progress toward the total eradication of polio in recent years is in large part due to the work of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI).
What is the Global Polio Eradication Initiative?
In 1988, the year that the Global Polio Eradication Initiative was founded, an estimated 350,000 children contracted polio a year. The World Health Assembly founded the GPEI as a joint project of several organizations including the WHO, UNICEF and the CDC. Other organizations, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, have since joined and become key members. Since its founding, the GPEI has played a central role in reducing the number of polio cases by 99%, from 350,000 in 1988 to 33 reported cases in 2018.
How the GPEI is Fighting COVID-19 in Africa
In March 2020, the GPEI suspended its polio vaccination efforts in order to direct its resources to help fight COVID-19 in Africa. These resources have been crucial in helping to increase testing, with 16 of its polio laboratories in 15 countries dedicating 50% of its capacity to COVID-19 testing.
The GPEI’s resources have also been essential in facilitating contact-tracing efforts. For example, the WHO Geographic Information System (GIS) center in Congo, a program opened in 2017 to help track polio, is now lending its advanced software to help efforts to monitor the spread of COVID-19 in Africa. The WHO has also adapted a mobile phone application it developed for polio tracking to be used by investigators in countries like Zimbabwe to track new cases of COVID-19.
Fighting Two Viruses at Once
In late July 2020, the GPEI decided to end its four-month suspension of vaccinations as evidence mounted that polio transmission was increasing in some countries. Vaccinators have resumed their efforts in the West African countries of Angola and Burkina Faso, now with new guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including masks and a ‘no-touch’ vaccination method.
The GPEI is now fighting a war on two fronts, simultaneously confronting polio and COVID-19 in Africa. The WHO Regional Director For Africa, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, argues that “We cannot wait for the COVID-19 pandemic to be contained to resume immunization activities.” GPEI is demonstrating that mass immunization can be safely conducted with strict COVID-19 protocols in place.
The GPEI’s global polio eradication efforts have contributed to saving an estimated 18 million people from paralysis. These efforts have also contributed to saving the lives of around one and a half million children. The WHO estimates that the total eradication of polio would save at least $40 billion worldwide, mostly in developing countries.
Thanks to a cooperative effort that has surmounted huge logistical obstacles, polio will soon be relegated to the history books, to the great benefit of all people worldwide. Although the COVID-19 outbreak temporarily interrupted this process, it has not stopped it. The GPEI’s work to defeat polio showcases that investing in global health can have far-reaching benefits. The GPEI’s efforts during COVID-19 serve as proof that two viruses can be addressed at once.
– Dylan Weir