JANUARY 9 — It is disheartening to see polio re-occurring in Malaysia after we had proudly defeated it in 1992. However, it does not come as a surprise. As long as there is still polio anywhere on earth, no country is safe. Polio is just a plane, or boat, ride away. When polio re-emerged in the Philippines, it was a matter of time before it spread via unvaccinated populations moving to Sabah.
Polio is a devastating disease with permanent crippling consequences. There is no cure once it had set it, and 10 per cent die. The once-familiar image of a child with braces is part of the supportive and rehabilitative efforts to make life better for polio survivors. In the 1950s and 1960s, the famous Salk (injected, inactivated virus) and Sabin (oral, live virus) vaccines were developed and the use of these quickly eradicated polio in developed countries. However, thousands of children were still suffering daily from polio in countries not covered by polio vaccination.
Rotary Clubs throughout the world initiated many mass polio vaccination programmes in many developing countries in the 70s and 80s. In 1979, Rotary International itself organised a mass vaccination programme in the Philippines which was highly successful in saving children from polio. In 1985, there was a call within Rotary to raise US$120 million for a global polio vaccination programme and there was a massive response, raising US$247 million for polio eradication. This organised effort was called PolioPlus, as it envisioned delivering polio vaccines along with other health benefits for other childhood diseases as well.
In 1988, Rotary International, WHO, Unicef and US Center of Disease Control and Prevention formed a partnership called Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) to be more effective and garner more support for the effort to eradicate polio globally. Eventually, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation became its biggest donor for this worthy fight. Rotarians all over the world continue to raise funds for GPEI. 1.2 million Rotarians worldwide contributed about 15 per cent of the amount raised in 2018. Since 1985, Rotary has contributed US$1.9 billion to fight polio.
Rotarians are also involved in polio awareness and vaccination awareness programmes worldwide, calling upon the world to press on till polio is completely eradicated. Since the work started, 2.5 billion children have been vaccinated globally. From 350,000 cases of polio a year in 1988, the figure had dropped to 33 cases in 2018. We were THIS CLOSE to making history by ending polio forever.
In 2003, Malaysia hosted the summit of the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) in Putrajaya and championed the eradication of polio in the last six countries in OIC still with polio at that time. Malaysia led by example by contributing US$1 million to GPEI and was honoured at the 2007 Rotary International Convention.
Victories this year have been the absence of polio in Nigeria for more than three years, and the certification that polio virus type 3 has been wiped-out worldwide. However, this year there have been 125 cases of wild polio in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Add to this more than 241 cases of vaccine-derived polio. A fake video in Pakistan caused panic, resulting in vaccination refusals, damage to health facilities and even killing of vaccination workers. Pakistan is still reeling from the blow. The vaccine-derived polio outbreak in the Philippines and Sabah shows that we must not let down our guard against polio.
In Malaysia, there is an excellent vaccination coverage for Malaysian children, but let us not forget the non-Malaysian children who need to pay for health services, including vaccination. We have to ensure high vaccination coverage for them as well. UNHCR estimates that more than 46,000 refugee children reside in Malaysia. There are many more undocumented migrant children in Sabah. They not only are at risk of polio and other vaccine-preventable diseases, but also put Malaysian children at risk.
Rotarians in Malaysia are fully committed in our fight towards polio eradication. We urge the government of Malaysia to be proactive in vaccinating all children in Malaysia, including migrants and refugees. They have a right to health too.
We are motivated by our motto and credo — SERVICE ABOVE SELF and committed to assist the government in helping raise awareness and assisting in polio immunisation efforts throughout the country.
Smallpox had existed for at least 3,000 years and was one of the world’s most feared diseases until it was eradicated by a collaborative global vaccination programme led by the World Health Organisation. Smallpox was officially declared eradicated in 1979.
We are THIS CLOSE to ending polio and making it the second disease to be eradicated from this world. It can and has been done before.
Let’s make polio history.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail