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Covid-19 is disrupting routine vaccination programmes across the world. It is crucial to achieve high rates of immunisation if we’re to safeguard our future health
The last few months have been like living in a science fiction film as the Covid-19 virus brought our society, economy and personal lives to a shuddering halt. However, among all the negative news about rising cases across the world, it was great to hear some good news about progress in the battle against another deadly virus. With its elimination from Nigeria, Africa has finally been declared free from wild polio by the World Health Organization.
Most people in the UK don’t know anyone who has survived polio but it used to be one of the diseases parents most feared. It is spread through the ingestion of the virus from contact with an infectious person or from food they have handled.
The vast majority of affected children have mild or minimal symptoms, with it affecting the nervous system in less than 1% of patients. However, in those cases the outcome can be devastating – resulting in paralysis or even death.
There were five major epidemics in the UK between 1945 and 1960, with ‘paralytic polio’ affecting 3,000-7,000 people, mostly children, each year and causing 750 deaths.
Outbreaks tended to occur in the summer and lockdowns were used to keep children apart in a bid to reduce the spread of this fearful disease. Children were kept at home as all major public gatherings were cancelled and play parks, cinemas and swimming pools were closed.
Similar epidemics in America led to the drive to find a cure. Jonas Salk developed the first polio vaccine, introduced in 1955, followed by Albert Sabin’s oral vaccine just a few years later. Within a couple of years, cases of polio dropped dramatically and many countries started working towards elimination.
There were, however, still 350,000 cases of paralytic polio each year when the World Health Organization established the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) in 1988. This was a partnership with national governments, UNICEF and other organisations such as Rotary International and the Gates Foundation.
This global project has seen cases of wild polio reduced by more than 99% but it still lingers albeit in small numbers in the most challenging places, due to a combination of difficult terrain and regional conflict, along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Nigeria was the last African country with endemic wild polio, having faced a setback in 2003 due to a year-long boycott by three of the northern states. Just a year later, local leaders were convinced to reverse the boycott but it left an ongoing distrust of immunisation in northern Nigeria for many years.
Thankfully, there have been no new cases of wild polio in Nigeria for four years and this is testament to the work of GPEI and the commitment and persistence of its local staff.
Through unprecedented global co-operation, the world has eradicated smallpox and is well on the way to removing the scourge of polio.
As with all vaccines, it is crucial to achieve high rates of immunisation to prevent a return of the disease.
GPEI is now working more closely with GAVI, the vaccine alliance, to ensure routine provision of the full range of childhood vaccines to every child – regardless of where in the world they live. While health is threatened by the spread of Covid-19, there is also concern about its impact on routine vaccination programmes in the UK as well as across the world.
Like Alexander Fleming, with his discovery of penicillin, neither Jonas Salk nor Albert Sabin sought to patent their vaccines, so they would be available across the world in the fight against polio. Through unprecedented global co-operation, the world has eradicated smallpox and is well on the way to removing the scourge of polio. Now we need to see the same global effort, altruism and co-operation in the fight against Covid-19.
Philippa Whitford is SNP MP for Central Ayrshire and chair of the Vaccinations for All APPG.