What Africa and Polio Remind Us About COVID

By Karl Hofmann, President & CEO, Population Services International

Africa is celebrating the elimination of wild poliovirus, a huge achievement.

Polio is not yet ready to join smallpox in the vault of deadly diseases that we have vanquished through public health strategies – there are still cases of wild poliovirus circulating in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and also still cases of polio that arise from incomplete vaccination campaigns. But the final elimination of both wild and vaccine-caused polio will be possible when all our public health and vaccine programs are able to complete their work.

If you are reading this at age 50 or older, your parents worried about, desperately feared, and in some cases suffered from polio. They certainly feared for your safety against the dreaded infection, until the miraculous vaccine arrived in the mid-1950s.

If you are 40, your grandparents avoided public swimming pools in the summer, when polio flared. They feared the gruesome prospect of needing an iron lung to breathe. They might have known people who were crippled or who died from polio.

What an achievement to lift that burden of fear from future generations! Mastery of polio, the ending of that visceral fear among parents and eventually one day the total elimination of polio are all thanks to vaccines, good public health policy, strong and committed leadership and a community sense of purpose.

These elements help us to overcome the dangers of infectious disease. And we need to trust in them again now. When we have tools such as vaccines that allow us to consider eliminating, rather than simply managing an infectious threat, the opportunity to lift the burden of fear from all of us should excite and motivate leaders everywhere.

Speaking from the perspective of the United States right now, where the vaccine response to COVID-19 seems distant but still likely (we have faith in our scientists and medicine to solve health challenges, despite all the rhetorical attacks on science), and where the benefits of community solidarity seem only rarely to be recognized, danger and fear feel ever-present. Confusion and doubt are COVID’s clever handmaidens.

Africa’s polio success, brought about through decades of hard, exacting vaccination work, with strong support from the WHO’s Regional Office for Africa, is a lesson for us now.

Anything that undermines public confidence in sound medical advice sets us back against COVID.

Everything that adds to doubts about public health guidance is dangerous – to public health.

Africa’s achievement against polio took decades. We celebrate this moment 65 years after the introduction of the first effective vaccine. Too long – too many lost and damaged lives! In recent years the hardest barriers to overcome came from misinformation about the vaccine (“it will sterilize your women!”) that was weaponized by violent extremists such as Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria to undermine vaccinations.

That a movement calling books bad would seek to undermine vaccines should shock but not surprise us. The effects of weaponized misinformation were expensive and dangerous in public health terms.

We love our biology, and we can’t escape it. We think in biological terms. Computers have “viruses.” Racism in society is a “disease.” Organizational cultures and even our buildings can be “healthy” – or “sick.” Behaviors can be “contagious” – both for good and for ill. And misinformation may spread like a pathogen.

Like transparency against corruption, truth and honesty are weapons against pandemics. Let’s be sure to cherish truth, reach for honesty, and work together to keep our human collective – all of us – healthy.

Banner image: As part of a USAID-supported polio initiative, a vaccinator in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) administers the oral polio vaccine March 23 in the Commune of Ndjili, Kinshasa. On that day, Minister of Health Victor Makwenge Kaput officially launched a vaccination campaign against the wild poliovirus in the capital city. Photo Credit: USAID/A. Mukeba

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