From polio to Covid-19: What we can learn from polio eradication for pandemic response

Interview | Dr. Rohit Gupta, Consultant Pediatrics at Daffodils by Artemis, Jaipur

Lessons learnt from the polio campaign show that being prepared for health emergencies is crucial to fight the battle against such problems | PTI Lessons learnt from the polio campaign show that being prepared for health emergencies is crucial to fight the battle against such problems | PTI

World Polio Day, October 24, highlights the efforts of the world to wipe off polio which the World Health Assembly had committed to eradicate in 1998. The day raises awareness of the importance of polio vaccination and celebrates all stakeholders- right from volunteers to parents who helped make the world polio free.

Dr. Rohit Gupta, Consultant Pediatrics at Daffodils by Artemis, Jaipur speaks on the larger lessons of polio eradication for pandemics.

Could you please shed some historical light on polio.

Polio, short for poliomyelitis, was once a global epidemic that affected millions of people especially children and caused lifelong paralysis, disability and in severe cases, even death. Then a turning point came in the mid-20th century when the fight against polio began with the development of the polio vaccine. The rigorous efforts to combat polio resulted in the formation of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) in 1988 which was led by organisations like the World Health Organization (WHO), the Rotary International and UNICEF. Widespread vaccination campaigns led to the global eradication of the poliovirus. The last endemic case was reported in Nigeria in 2016. This incredible achievement served as a blueprint for pandemic response.

What lessons does polio eradication hole on the importance of global unity?

One of the most important lessons learnt from polio eradication is the necessity of global unity. The success of the polio eradication program exhibits the power of international collaboration. Governments, NGOs, and philanthropic organisations joined hands to collect resources, share knowledge, and coordinate efforts. Covid-19 was also a similar situation that demanded a global response, and organisations like the WHO played a pivotal role in coordinating efforts, sharing data, and ensuring equitable vaccine distribution.

In both, polio and a pandemic, surveillance and data sharing play a huge role. Please explain.

Accurate data and real-time surveillance were vital in the fight against polio. An extensive network of healthcare workers worked on tracking the cases, identifying hotspots, and conducting mass vaccination campaigns. Similarly, in the fight against Covid-19, strong data collection, testing, and contact tracing have been instrumental in understanding, identifying and controlling outbreaks.

What is the role of vaccination campaigns?

Vaccination is the foundation of both polio eradication and Covid-19 containment. The lessons learnt from polio campaigns, like the importance of public awareness and community engagement, give important insights for managing the distribution and acceptance of Covid-19 vaccines.

What were the obstacles faced in polio eradication?

The polio eradication programme encountered numerous obstacles, including conflict zones and vaccine hesitancy. Adapting to these challenges, innovating delivery methods, and incorporating local expertise were key to success. The Polio Eradication journey, however, witnessed some remarkable innovations as well. Like the rapid development of oral vaccines, cold chain technology and community engagement strategies. Similarly, in the case of Covid-19, development of vaccines, therapeutic treatments, and new testing methods, delivery of vaccines highlighted the importance of adaptability and innovation.

The campaign was also adapted to local contexts.

Both polio as well as Covid-19 required strategies that were tailored to local contexts. While the global objective was eradication or containment, the methods to combat the problems varied from region to region. Understanding factors like the local culture, infrastructure, and healthcare system is crucial in pandemic response.

What is the role of leadership and trust?

Strong leadership and winning public trust were critical in both polio eradication as well as pandemic response. Leaders who prioritised science-based decision-making and communicated effectively were successful in gaining public confidence and cooperation.

What are the other lessons common to polio and pandemics?

One would be the investment in health infrastructure. This is an important legacy of the polio eradication campaign. Covid-19 has highlighted the need for robust healthcare systems worldwide, with an emphasis on preventive care, diagnostic capabilities, and surge capacity. Investing in good healthcare infrastructure and services is vital to ensure that any country is ready to combat such problems and emerge triumphant with flying colours.

Polio eradication efforts underscored the importance of equity in healthcare access. Likewise, Covid-19 has emphasised the need for equitable vaccine distribution and healthcare access, especially among the vulnerable and marginalised communities.

Pandemics are unpredictable, and resilience is key. Lessons learnt from the polio campaign show that being prepared for health emergencies, including stockpiling essential medical supplies and mobilising healthcare personnel, is crucial to fight the battle against such fatal problems.

Eradicating polio took decades of sustained efforts and commitment. The Covid-19 pandemic reminded us that the fight against infectious diseases requires long-term dedication and resources. It's important that the lessons learnt from such diseases are not forgotten and are used as a reminder to have a robust health care system.

World Polio Day is an important reminder of the lessons learnt in one of the biggest health campaigns. Please elaborate.

World Polio Day serves as a reminder of the impressive progress the world has made against polio and the lessons we have learned from that fight. The Covid-19 pandemic presented some similar and complicated challenges. Thanks to the strategies and principles that guided polio eradication, the battle against the Covid-19 pandemic was fought using some of those strategies that proved to be of great help. International collaboration, data sharing, vaccination campaigns, adaptability, leadership, equity, and sustained commitment are some of the most important principles that apply to both crises.

As we commemorate World Polio Day, let us not only celebrate the triumph over polio but also reaffirm our commitment to not forget these valuable lessons and keep ourselves prepared beforehand for future pandemics. The eradication of polio is a testament to human resilience and ingenuity, offering hope and inspiration in our fight against the current global health crisis. With a robust health care system, unity and strong resilience, we can fight the battle against any disease and emerge triumphant with flying colours.

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