THE BLOG

Polio - Almost History

29/11/2015 19:35 GMT | Updated 29/11/2016 10:12 GMT

When I was growing up in the 1950's children disabled by polio were visible and not uncommon, even in the UK. One of my neighbours was affected. Since then, I have helped raise the funds needed to tackle polio and have personally immunised children in Africa. I am excited that now the world is on the cusp of eradicating this virulent and disabling disease. This September, Nigeria was removed from the list of polio-epidemic countries and now the disease remains endemic in only two countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

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4-year-old Aziza receives a dose of oral polio vaccine Unicef/2012/Pakistan/Zaidi

The hard-won battle to eradicate polio once and for all is within our grasp but we can't relax yet. We must, maintain and accelerate our efforts. So it is heartening to see Commonwealth countries, including the UK, coming together this weekend at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Malta to review the results achieved to date and call for renewed global support.

The Commonwealth has historically been at the forefront of work to eradicate polio - previously declaring their joint collaboration to eliminate the disease in Perth Australia in 2011. Since the statement of support four years ago there has been exceptional progress. For the first time, all countries on the African continent have gone a year without a single case of wild polio and India and the South East Asia region have been declared polio free.

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A health worker carries a cold storage case of polio vaccine Unicef/2007/Nigeria/Nesbitt

The news from Nigeria is truly remarkable. No case of wild polio virus has been reported in the country since 24 July 2014 -and laboratory data has confirmed a full 12 months have passed without any new cases. To put this in perspective, in 2012 Nigeria accounted for more than half of all polio cases worldwide.

The breakthrough in Nigeria is the result of a concerted effort by all levels of government, civil society, religious leaders and tens of thousands of dedicated health workers, often Polio survivors themselves. More than 200,000 volunteers across the country repeatedly immunised more than 45million children under the age of five years to ensure that no child would suffer from this paralysing disease.

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Two health workers from a mobile immunization team register children during a campaign against polio Unicef/2004/Nigeria/Yahaya

Mother of three, Karima Ushman, is one of them. Working in Katsina in northern Nigeria, she peddles her tricycle with her hands house-to-house to administer the Oral Polio Vaccine (OPV) to children under the age of five.

"No one used to go house to house giving OPV when I was small. That is why I got Polio. Most people get convinced easily when they see me and realise what the Polio Virus can do. But there are some who are totally non-compliant due to the spread of misinformation and myths and don't even come to the door to talk to me. I don't give up. I get off on my tricycle and walk on my hands and go inside their houses to talk to them. I will not rest till every parent agrees to get their child vaccinated."

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A toddler is immunized against polio during a house-to-house immunization drive Unicef/2007/Nigeria/Nesbitt

Eradicating polio will be one of the greatest achievements in human history and will have a positive impact on global health for generations to come. In 1998 there were 350,000 cases of polio in the world and in 2014, only 359. Never before in the history of polio have there been so few children in so few countries with this virus, but we need to get to zero cases. Until all children everywhere are consistently and routinely immunised against polio, children will still be in danger. We have to work to ensure there is not a single child unvaccinated anywhere until polio is completely eradicated.

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A health worker administers an oral polio vaccine to a yuong girl Unicef/2007/Nigeria/Nesbitt

Until then continued political and financial commitment from all countries - including the UK - remains critical, especially since the Global Polio Eradication Initiative faces a funding gap of $1.5 billion in its strategic plan for 2016 - 2019. Leaders at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting are expected to pledge new funding, which will be vital in helping the world to eradicate this deadly virus for good.

In a world short of good news stories, we have one almost in our grasp. It is essential that we get there - and ensure that Polio is no longer a part of anyone's childhood anywhere in the world.

For more information visit unicef.org.uk