ATHENS, Georgia — Polio, a vaccine-preventable disease that causes paralysis, typically in children, is close to complete eradication with a 99.9% decline in cases since 1988. With a goal of complete global polio eradication by 2023, in 2015, the world saw the complete eradication of type 2 wild poliovirus along with the eradication of type 3 in 2018. Afghanistan and Pakistan are now the only two countries in the world with incidences of polio. Complete eradication is possible, which would make polio potentially the “second infectious disease” to see eradication, behind smallpox. Women play an integral role in polio eradication efforts.
Gender Barriers in Polio Eradication Efforts
To achieve eradication, a gender strategy, implemented by organizations like the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), shows significant progress in decreasing vaccine refusals and increasing polio vaccination rates in vulnerable areas. One of the toughest barriers to polio eradication is the cultural and religious differences in countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan that do not allow male health workers to enter into homes to administer the vaccines.
While female health workers can enter and administer the vaccine, there is the secondary challenge of low education rates among women. Uneducated mothers are “less likely to immunize their children.” In communities with these barriers, women can make the greatest impact in polio eradication.
Several women have made the mission of polio eradication their life’s work. These outstanding women are making modern history, paving the way for future female public health leaders. With work all across the world, these women, and many more, make polio eradication a true possibility for the world.
Epidemiologist and health practitioner Ellyn Ogden “has led polio eradication for the US Agency for International Development (USAID) since 1997.” She is also currently the only woman serving on the European Certification Commission for polio eradication. Her support of NGOs and encouragement of national and community-wide polio eradication campaigns in African countries also contribute to her legacy.
To the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, Ogden sheds light on the importance of women in polio eradication through her first-hand stories of communities’ receptiveness to women healthcare workers in countries like India. With different ideologies and practices than countries in the Western hemisphere, these regions in need of the polio vaccine view men and women differently. In 2008, Ogden received the USAID Award for Heroism for her work in “negotiating ceasefires” in the eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo during a time of heightened violence, “which opened access to vaccinate millions of children.”
Jawahir Habib is from a village in Balochistan, which borders Afghanistan, known as Kili Mengal Noshki. From a young age, Habib witnessed the differences in the societal standings of men and women in the Middle East. While based in Geneva as a program officer on UNICEF’s Polio Outbreak Team, Habib works to recruit, train and mobilize women in remote Pakistani communities like Balochistan to administer the polio vaccine.
Habib faces bias, threats and intimidation because of her work in these communities, however, her passion does not waver. One of her most successful projects took place in Chaman Tehsil on the border of Afghanistan with an all-female team. At the beginning of the project, vaccine refusals stood at roughly 15,000, yet by the end of four months, the number lowered to only around 400 refusals. Habib recognizes the power women hold in polio eradication and within the healthcare workforce.
Dr. Alda Morais Pedro De Sousa
Dr. Alda Morais Pedro De Sousa’s career centers around polio eradication in Angola. As the National Expanded Program on Immunization (EPI) manager for Angola, De Sousa’s experience in polio eradication in Angola is vast and all-encompassing. In 1998, she served on a team working to implement an Epidemiological Surveillance System for Acute Flaccid Paralysis (AFP). AFP is a critical symptom of wild poliovirus and De Sousa worked within communities with staggering numbers of polio cases to eradicate the virus from Angola.
In November 2015, Angola became wild polio-free. However, in 2019, a new type of polio, which is vaccine-derived, appeared in low immunity communities. De Sousa immediately began her work creating more vaccine campaigns and recruiting women healthcare workers to begin eradication in these regions. In July 2020, “more than 1.2 million children” received vaccinations from more than 4,000 healthcare workers. Angola receives recognition for the number of national female workers in the public health sector, specifically, in vaccine programs and polio eradication.
Dr. Farzia Sadat
Women in Afghanistan often lack the ability to join the workforce, however, women account for a majority of workers in the polio vaccine campaign, with thousands volunteering at each one. Dr. Farzia Sadat hires many of these women to participate in the vaccination campaigns she coordinates across the country. After being denied a university education for six years due to restrictions placed on women, Sadat returned to school to graduate with top grades in her class. Since then, she began managing polio eradication campaigns while recruiting women to join the fight.
Dr. Sadat reports millions of Afghan children receiving the polio vaccine and thousands of women trained to administer the vaccine weekly. This campaign has been ongoing for almost two years now with exponential progress expected with the increase in female involvement in these regions. Sadat sees women’s abilities to enter and engage in certain communities where men would typically not be able to do the same and uses this to her campaigns’ advantage.
Thanks to the dedication and commitment of female figures around the world, global polio eradication stands in the near future.
– Annaclaire Acosta