When my daughter Caitlin cried getting her polio booster, I was able to staunch the flow of her tears by describing the amazing work USAID/Central Asian Republics did in Tajikistan last spring when USAID’s rapid response and advocacy with the host governments and other donors resulted in more than 7 million children getting vaccinated (that’s more than 95 percent of the under-five population).
Caitlin’s response to me was “I’d be happy to give my vaccine to the kids who need it. But what else can I do to help?” Her innocent comments reflect the spirit of our team as we rolled up our sleeves and mobilized the Tajik Health Ministry and other donors to respond decisively with a series of national immunization campaigns that effectively stopped the spread of the outbreak in six months.
I was reminded of this victory last week when the European Regional Certification Commission for Poliomyelitis Eradication (RCC) announced that Europe will keep its polio-free status. Last week, in Copenhagen, the RCC said that wild poliovirus transmission had been interrupted. “No new cases of polio had been reported since September 2010 because countries took effective action.” That statement is referencing Central Asian countries—for example, Tajikistan—which in 2010 saw its largest polio outbreak in decades. There were 898 reported cases of acute flaccid paralysis in Central Asia in 2010. Acute flaccid paralysis is the most common symptom of polio and is one indicator for polio surveillance during an outbreak.
The RCC acknowledged the contribution and technical support of the World Health Organization Regional Office for Europe, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative partners and the Russian Federation, India, and USAID. Not only did our work halt this devastating disease, but it also built the foundations of new U.S.-Russia bilateral cooperation on joint efforts to assist with strengthening health systems and surveillance in the region.
Polio has no cure, and only vaccination can prevent it. But additional funding, coupled with technical assistance and strong advocacy, increases the ability to mount high-quality campaigns and sustain a population’s immunity, which is the best we can do until global eradication is achieved. The Central Asian Republics have eradicated polio successfully in the past, and serve as an important lesson to stay vigilant and maintain a strong immunization program.