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Craig Feigin | Learning from the Global Polio Eradication Initiative
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15 Aug Learning from the Global Polio Eradication Initiative

Thirty years. It’s been a long time coming, but another milestone is in sight. We’re trying to commit a global act of extinction in order to preserve the lives of millions.

Because way back in 1988 a nasty little disease called Polio was claiming a third of a million victims a year, and now it’s virtually eradicated. There has been a cooperative effort spanning over two hundred countries and literally tens to hundreds of millions of people, over the whole face of our planet. Like smallpox before it, polio is feeling the hand of oblivion feeling its collar.

We aren’t perfect, us humans. There are some who have passed laws against vaccination against any disease, and polio is still out there in the wild but we have two things going for us.

Firstly, it’s not resilient unless it has a host. Transferred from the bowel of a carrier to the next victim, babies given polio vaccine are “hot” for a while afterwards and mothers usually receive a top-up vaccination at the same time to completely cover the risk of any transmission.

Secondly, the world is a harsh place for a virus with a diminishing pool of susceptible victims. Polio only causes the devastating symptoms which characterise infection in about one percent of those it infects, so detecting it can be a tricky business when wholesale screening isn’t an option. So we need to rely on reported cases and preventative vaccination. Again, though, numbers are on our side now.

So, pleasant though this news is, what do we learn from it to take forward?

  1. Regardless of the scale of the task, the solution is often to take repeated small steps with determination. Polio is dying out because the strategy is very effective. It’s taken so long because it needed to be applied consistently and across a huge population.
  2. Cooperation is essential. Few countries have refused to engage because the benefits of removing polio completely are clear. Getting everyone to agree to every part wasn’t necessary, but agreeing on the end goal is vital from the outset.
  3. Confirming eradication of polio is a staged process. Even after we think it has been achieved in a region we must wait to ensure no further cases present themselves, and deal with any that arise. Setting and achieving a series of interim targets has helped to focus and target resources.
  4. It’s been thirty years! Thirty solid years of working hard and delivering in the field, managing data and keeping tabs on infection rates and reported cases. Thirty years of the usual round of setbacks, innovation, questions, reports. The average person might devote a couple of years to a development project. Maybe a decade to some seriously large infrastructure delivery. This is inconceivably huge and has no fixed end date. Nevertheless, this could only have been achieved with a plan that engages all parties and partners.
  5. The details matter. Every step has cost money, resources, human effort and all those bills have been paid with international partners raising funds and negotiating input from everyone from multinational companies to nations themselves.

What is it you’re planning to achieve? It certainly isn’t going to be as big or as tough as eradicating a whole disease. But you can apply the same basics to make sure the path to success is as straight and smooth as you can make it.

Read more about the fight against Polio on the BBC News website here.

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