"The worldwide pandemic that we are collectively experiencing right now makes it easy to forget the unfinished fight against another virus. One that has affected humanity for thousands of years, can cause paralysis and death, and for which we have an effective vaccine - the fight to end polio.
On 29 October, it will have been 20 years since Australia was declared polio free, but in other parts of the world this disease continues to impact the world’s youngest (it mainly affects children under 5) and hardest to reach. Polio is the only other disease apart from COVID-19 that is designated as a current Public Health Emergency of International Concern.
Wild polio is now endemic only in Pakistan and Afghanistan, a credit to the incredible work by the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), in which UNICEF leads the procurement and delivery of billions of vaccines to the world’s most vulnerable children. We have gone from 350,000 cases annually in 1988 to just 176 reported cases in 2019.
When I joined UNICEF Australia as CEO, I visited our New York office and was introduced to a fellow Australian in the polio team. He had a framed black and white photo of a young man on his desk which I guessed to be himself or his father. He spoke with huge passion about ending polio once and for all. This fellow Australian was Rod Curtis, former polio coordinator in the UNICEF Polio Eradication Unit and the photo on his desk, I later learned, was of his uncle Ronnie - one of the victims of Australia’s 1953 polio outbreak.
Rod’s personal connection to polio inspired his passion for its eradication. His story has been hugely inspiring to me over the years and reminds me that polio was as much of a threat as COVID-19 in Australia not long ago.
During the Queen’s visit to Perth in 1954, some might recall the banning of handshakes and physical distancing requirements of placing flower bouquets an appropriate distance away. These restrictions are now all too familiar in our COVID-19 world, with UNICEF preparing to lead the procurement and supply of the biggest and fastest immunisation operation of its kind, once a vaccine is found.
Unlike COVID-19, we already have a successful and proven vaccine for polio. It has eliminated 99.9% of cases globally. The GPEI has delivered more than 10 billion doses of the oral vaccine to nearly three billion children worldwide since 2000. Vaccine teams go house to house, across mountains and rivers, into urban slums and rural villages, all while maintaining the vaccine at the appropriate temperature.
These efforts are driving incredible progress. This year Africa was the fifth of six WHO regions to be declared free of wild polio. Achievements like this inspire us to keep going. They allow us to hope that, collectively, we can control and eradicate viruses like polio.
But this year has also presented setbacks on a scale we haven’t seen before. Fewer effects of the current pandemic are more damaging than the disruption to global vaccine programs. In May, UNICEF warned that at least 80 million children around the world were not receiving routine immunisations. In Pakistan, every month that programs were delayed, 700,000 newborns missed out on essential vaccinations. Although programs have now restarted, low immunisation coverage means a higher risk of polio spreading. We cannot afford to let the gains of the last few decades unravel.
I am immensely proud that Australia has been a global leader in the fight against polio, investing expertise and essential funding to make this a disease of the past. The Government’s support has saved millions of children’s lives and enabled us to get to where we are today, but we need to work even harder together to reach the children who are still exposed to this deadly virus.
We know how to do it, so let’s finish our joint mission to end polio. This success will make us stronger, healthier and better prepared to fight other pandemics, including COVID-19. We urge Australia to continue its leadership towards preventable diseases by championing and funding polio eradication programs. It’s in our strategic health security interest, and it’s the right thing to do for the world’s children."
Tony Stuart is CEO of UNICEF Australia