Polio eradication – “We cannot stop now” says WHO’s Michel Zaffran

Polio eradication – “We cannot stop now” says WHO’s Michel Zaffran

Director of the World Health Organization’s Polio Eradication programme since 2015, Michel Zaffran retires at the end of the year, but as he explained to hundreds of viewers on Rotary’s togetherTalks, he is still very passionate about the cause.

He said that despite the obvious influence on and the delays to the delivery of vaccinations, caused by polio volunteers catching COVID-19, the work is ongoing and will reach the end of its journey when “every last child is safe from polio”.

However the work on polio eradication has created a personalised, logistical and operational template for future and current health emergencies, such as COVID-19.

He talked about the higher number of infections in Afghanistan and Pakistan calling for governments to be more accountable.

Also hoping that local communities need to take more responsibility to achieve the same success as the now polio free Nigeria.

There is also an increasing threat of vaccine-derived polio viruses on the continent, even though these are rare.

Michel told viewers that Rotary and Rotarians were the “moral authority” in this health fight, but we need to redouble efforts.

“We cannot give up or be complacent”.

This year has so far seen 95 cases of circulating vaccine-derived polio cases in 12 countries in Asia and Africa.

The WHO and partners have also kick started a process to raise the current global strategy and it is hoped eradication will be complete by the time the World Health Assembly takes place in 2021.

A polio case anywhere is a polio threat everywhere.”

There have been tensions between the Pashtun groups of Pakistan and their government. Communities believe that the crucial need for clean water and basic health and food outweigh the need for polio vaccines.

This has created resentment so work needs to be carried out to reach compromises, especially, as Michel says, “when the children see health workers bringing polio drops and their parents need access to water.”

Michel has said his passion for polio support will continue into retirement. Among his upcoming challenges is his new role as President of his Rotary club in France, taking office from July next year.

A saying he has sums up his feelings about the ongoing polio eradication campaign, and that is “that a polio case anywhere is a polio threat everywhere. We must not give up.”

The WHO’s Africa region was declared free from wildpolio in August 2020.

He added that infectious diseases are everywhere and COVID-19 is leaving children more vulnerable now to catching viruses due to a weakened immune system.

Michel praised the spirit of the public and private partnership of the polio campaign – it is the largest in the world and a good example of collaboration.

But “the number of cases has exploded, some borders are closed and we need to finish the job of eradication. There are 400 million children still needing vaccinations globally. We are using satellite technology to track people in hard to find parts of the world.”

He explained that young people need to learn about this disease and how debilitating it is, and that vaccines save lives. Rumours have spread alleging children were dying after receiving the vaccine, so people are stopping having the drops. This is total misinformation. Good and accurate communication is crucial.

Retirement is coming but Michel is proud that, during his tenure, the wild polio virus 3 has gone.

Three Take Away Points

In each togetherTalk, we invite guests to give us three take away points. Areas which they would like to see change or actions we can all take to make a difference. Here are Adam’s:

  1. The need to convey that vaccines work and save lives.
  2. Rotarians should be proud of what they have achieved and the power of partnership
  3. We cannot give up. We must continue to raise funds and finish the job. I’ve repeated this phrase but it must be heard.

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