What The Fight to End Polio Teaches Us About COVID-19
Spoiler Alert—Vaccines Work
For nearly a decade, I’ve been closely following the effort to eradicate polio. My effort even won me a couple of visits with Bill Gates to talk about it. While chatting with Bill and my Cornell MBA don’t qualify me as a public health expert, the new omicron variant demands that I share what I’ve learned and how it can guide public policy and personal actions for fighting COVID-19.
About 40 years ago, Rotary Clubs began organizing polio immunization campaigns in the Philippines. In 1985, Rotary International decided to make polio eradication a global goal. In partnership with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization and UNICEF, Rotary launched the effort dubbed PolioPlus in 1988.
During the mid-1980s, the world experienced almost 400,000 cases of polio each year. So far this year, there have been four documented cases resulting from the wild poliovirus. Four. Not 400,000. Not 40,000. Not 4,000. Not 400. Not 40. Four. That is a reduction of almost 99.999 percent.
How did this come about? Vaccines work. The polio fighting partners, more recently joined by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and GAVI (the Global Vaccine Alliance), have been working around the clock to vaccinate every child in the world against polio. The fight to end polio will be history within a few short years.
The polio immunization efforts have not generally been mandatory. Instead, the partners have worked with government and religious leaders worldwide at the highest and lowest, most local levels to communicate how safe and effective the vaccines are.
During my visit to Pakistan in 2016, I had the opportunity to visit with an Imam who led a local madrasa, an after-school program for religious training. I asked why he encouraged the parents of his students to get the polio vaccine for their children. He was confident and kind as he explained that the vaccines prevented the disease that could otherwise leave children paralyzed.
The polio experience provides three insights about fighting COVID at the macro level.
First, President Trump was on the right track pushing for rapid vaccine development. Nothing is more effective. President Biden and other world leaders are right to aggressively encourage vaccination, including carefully constructed mandates for some people in some situations.
Second, local and national governments, NGOs, religious leaders, health care leaders and public health officials need to work together to debunk false information about vaccines and replace those messages with facts. That effort, as with polio, needs to operate at the most local level as well as the national and international. People need to hear from trusted leaders and friends that vaccines are safe—not just from scientists and political leaders they don’t know personally. This will require a coordinated effort.
Some religious leaders may feel uncomfortable in this role. The lives of their followers, however, hang in the balance. They must embrace the discomfort and their ability and responsibility to help convince the faithful to be vaccinated.
Third, we see that polio fighting has been successful because the Global Polio Eradication Initiative—the structure used by the partners (again, Rotary, CDC, WHO, UNICEF, Gates Foundation and GAVI) works globally. Each member of the team is responsible for different aspects. None has direct control over any of the others. All respect the contributions of the other partners. Egos are checked. Data reigns supreme.
We need to respect the role of United Nations-affiliated NGOs like the WHO. We should deploy private and government resources coordinated closely with the WHO to eradicate the disease globally. Wealthy countries like the United States can never be safe from the virus so long as low-income countries can’t get adequate vaccine doses. This will require innovative approaches to affordable patent licensing so every country can produce vaccines at a low cost.
As I have traveled around the world working on polio and other stories, one part of preparing is visiting a travel nurse who checks the risks and rules of the countries I’m seeing. There is typically a list of required and recommended vaccines. It is quite a task to keep good records of all the vaccinations. It has probably been a dozen years or more since I didn’t have at least one shot in a year.
This experience brings me to a final point. Each of us is responsible for getting the COVID vaccination, including the booster shot now available to adults. The Fauci ouchie is not just for our own health but for our family and friends.
While visiting India in 2014, polio fighters there explained that they had in the extreme documented a case of a child who had received 18 doses of the polio vaccine before contracting it. Vaccines work remarkably well, but they aren’t perfect. Some vulnerable and vaccinated people will die from the disease. Their next layer of protection is their circle of family and friends getting immunized to protect them.
COVID immunity can be your new superpower! No one wants to be responsible for someone else’s illness, hospitalization or worse. Let’s all get vaccinated.