Innovating to Eradicate Polio

The war against polio will be won or lost in Pakistan and Afghanistan.” Dr Zulfiqar A. Bhutta

Home to 85 per cent of the world’s polio cases in 2014, Pakistan is at the centre of the campaign to make polio the first disease since smallpo​x to be eradicated from the globe. And, working with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, AKU is helping to lead the way. Building on its successful vaccination campaign in 2013 and 2014, the University has developed a strategy to vaccinate 1 million children in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh.

The work is supported by a US$ 7.7 million grant from the Gates Foundation,and will be carried out with numerous partners, including the World Health Organization, Pakistan’s Ministry of Health and the Trust for Vaccines and Immunization.

“This is the last frontier,” said project leader Dr Zulfiqar A. Bhutta, the Founding Director of the AKU Centre of Excellence in Women and Child Health. “The war against polio will be won or lost in Pakistan and Afghanistan.”

By 2013, the number of people paralysed by polio worldwide had dwindledto 406, thanks to a massive campaign of vaccination. But a spike in cases in Pakistan made it clear more remains to be done. AKU responded by demonstrating what many had doubted: that in places where door-to-door, polio-only vaccination campaigns encounter resistance, high levels of coverage can be achieved by setting up health camps that provide routine immunizations and primary health care services along with injectable polio vaccine. Now, the challenge will be to show similar results can be achieved at a much greater scale. Dr Bhutta is confident it can be done.

“We’ve broken many myths with the work AKU has done on polio in Pakistan,”he said. “For a pure NGO to do what we have done – without the science and evidence a university can bring to the table – would have been very difficult. But we’ve been working on this for many years, and we’ve developed the evidence needed.”

More than 80 polio-eradication workers in Pakistan have been killed inrecent years. Yet countless vaccinators continue to perform their jobs, and the overwhelming majority of parents are receptive.“Just like in certain places in the West, there is misinformation and misunderstanding in Pakistan regarding vaccines,” Dr Bhutta said. “Butoverwhelmingly, the support exists to end polio. It is something we’re doing not just for Pakistan, but for the world.”