#Polio eradication in @CDCMMWR: Are we finally on the cusp of that elusive dream?

Note: This was cross-posted to my own blog.


I came across a very encouraging article in last week’s MMWR (the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report) this morning about polio eradication. After several reappearances in 2013, cases are down again this year and, if things continue to go well, the end may be in sight:

Four of six WHO regions have been certified as free of indigenous WPV, and endemic transmission of WPV continued in only three countries in 2014. In 2013, the global polio eradication effort suffered setbacks with outbreaks in the Horn of Africa, Central Africa, and the Middle East; however, significant progress was made in 2014 in response to all three outbreaks. Nonetheless, the affected regions remain vulnerable to WPV re-importation from endemic areas and to low-level, undetected WPV circulation. Continued response activities are needed in these regions to further strengthen AFP surveillance and eliminate immunity gaps through high-quality SIAs and strong routine immunization programs.

Progress in Nigeria since 2012 has brought the goal of interrupting the last known chains of indigenous WPV transmission in Africa within reach. Elimination of all poliovirus transmission in Nigeria in the near term is feasible, through intensified efforts to 1) interrupt cVDPV2 transmission, 2) strengthen routine immunization services, and 3) increase access to children in insecure areas. Similar efforts should be implemented in all countries in Africa, where 9 months have passed without a reported WPV case, and 6 months have passed since the last reported cVDPV2 case.

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Number of cases of wild poliovirus type 1 in countries with recent polio outbreaks, by territory* — January 1, 2013–March 30, 2015

*Central Africa (Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea), Horn of Africa (Ethiopia and Somalia), and Middle East (Iraq and Syria).

The eradication push has suffered major blows in the last two years. In 2013, after six years of being polio-free, a major outbreak in Somalia contributed more polio cases to the year’s tally than the rest of the world combined; meanwhile, the virus made its way back into Syria that same fall after a 14-year hiatus. Luckily, extraordinary efforts in the midst of conflict zones on the part of health workers were able to beat the virus back to the heart of the fight – the final three countries in which it remains endemic.

Number of cases of wild poliovirus type 1 among countries with endemic poliovirus transmission, by country — January 1, 2013–March 30, 2015
Number of cases of wild poliovirus type 1 among countries with endemic poliovirus transmission, by country — January 1, 2013–March 30, 2015

Most (86%) WPV cases in Afghanistan in 2014 resulted from importation from Pakistan; however, the detection of orphan viruses highlights the need to strengthen the quality of both polio vaccination and AFP surveillance (10). Efforts are also needed to increase population immunity by intensifying routine polio immunization activities to ensure high coverage among infants with at least 3 OPV doses.

Recent challenges to the secure operation and public acceptance of the polio eradication program in Pakistan are unprecedented (10). Although poliovirus transmission has been concentrated primarily in the FATA region of northwest Pakistan, transmission has continued in the greater Karachi area, and WPV cases have been reported from all major Pakistan provinces. Successful efforts to enhance security to protect health workers and increase public demand for vaccination are urgently needed.

The recent gains in control and elimination of poliovirus transmission globally must be maintained and built upon through innovative strategies to access populations during SIAs in areas with complex security and political challenges, improve AFP surveillance, and strengthen routine immunization. With the progress achieved in 2014 to interrupt endemic WPV transmission in Nigeria and polio outbreaks in Africa and the Middle East, permanent interruption of global poliovirus transmission appears possible in the near future, provided that similar progress can be made in Afghanistan and Pakistan; progress there would also reduce the risk for future importation-related outbreaks in polio-free countries.

While there have been several cases of circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus in northern Nigeria, the fact that no wild poliovirus has been seen in the country since last July is extremely encouraging – eradication in Africa may be in sight. The final stronghold will be Pakistan and Afghanistan (primarily its regions that border Pakistan) – where, as the global health community has discussed ad nauseum, militants take advantage of the lack of public trust in eradication owing to bad intelligence schemes, among other things.

Obviously, it is still too early to tell. Gaps in surveillance mean incomplete data; there are most likely more cases that have not been reported. Furthermore, ongoing conflict (not to mention the recent Ebola outbreak) has left the health systems of many countries devastated, so vulnerabilities are everywhere. Nevertheless, with continued dedication (and a little luck), we may very well get there. Here’s hoping.

There is No Silver Bullet

There is no silver bullet and frankly you probably don’t need one. It is far more important to be able to find the right kind of gun, be able to load the gun, be able to aim the gun, and perhaps most importantly, be able to figure out where the werewolf is.Matthew Oliphant

Vampire Selene uses bullets with silver nitrate to fight off werewolves in "Underworld." Unfortunately, we do not have "silver nitrate bullets" for global health problems.

I always scratch my head a bit when the global health community is dismayed at the revelation that one of its previously hailed “silver bullets” is revealed to not be the miracle cure it was thought to be. The latest disappointment making its way across the blogosphere right now is microfinance: after shady lending practices and harassment of borrowers (driving some to suicide) were uncovered on the part of commercial microlenders in India, the development community began wringing its hands at the unfolding political scandal. The forced retirement of Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank, Nobel laureate, and pioneer of the microfinance institution, looks like the proverbial nail in the coffin of microfinance’s status as the one-stop solution for ending poverty. Now experts are holding panel discussions to debate whether or not microfinance “works.”

This is not the first time we have found ourselves crestfallen at the failure of a silver bullet. When evaluating the results of his “Grand Challenges in Global Health,” Bill Gates admitted that the organization had been “naïve” in its expectations of breakthroughs in vaccine development. He underestimated the time it takes to move new products from the lab through clinical trials and manufacturing. “I thought some would be saving lives by now,” he said, “and it’ll be more like in 10 years from now.” Tell me about it: I worked for a biotechnology start-up in college, and the time it took to get approval for phase I clinical trials allowed bad management to completely unravel the company – it took less than five years. By the time we got the green light from the FDA, the company was being bought out, and we never got to test the product.

Many are also astounded at the current descent from grace of Greg Mortenson, of Three Cups of Tea fame. Details of his inspiring Quixote-esque story of building schools for girls in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan are now being questioned, and donors are appalled at reports of mismanaged funds and schools being used as storage sheds. But don’t we already know that graft happens, and rookies make (sometimes colossal) mistakes? How reasonable was it to expect the Central Asia Institute, Mortenson’s charity, to “fix” Afghanistan by building schools? On the other hand, why are countries and large-scale donors pulling funding and creating a fuss over the graft that the Global Fund revealed through its own investigations?

Why are we continually disillusioned when the simple solutions to the complex problems of global health and poverty turn out to not be so simple? Part of the problem is marketing. Saundra Schimmelpfennig, who has made it her mission to point out and tackle issues surrounding charity (mis)representation and shady fundraising practices, points out that

Whether it’s TOMS A Day Without Shoes or CAI’s Pennies for Peace, schools and teachers are using what are essentially commercials for a charitable product to teach children about the larger world and philanthropy. As is the case with most commercials, these “awareness raising activities” often distort or over-simplify the problems faced in ways that benefit their own organization.

This is extremely worrying as the children brought up on these myths and misconceptions are going to turn into businessmen, philanthropists, and lawmakers. How will the decisions they make be impacted by a distorted view of what the world is like and how to really help?

Another part seems to be that despite each revelation, we are constantly drawn to the prospect that we will somehow still find that magic “something,” that the next innovation or big idea will be the much-sought-after silver bullet. Despite coming to terms with his naiveté, Gates is now saying that energy innovation is the key to beating climate change. Programmers are busily developing cell phone apps in the hope that cell phones can help end poverty.

The problems that we devote our careers to tackling are nowhere near simple, and it is unreasonable to expect to find simple solutions to them. Heck, we don’t even adequately fund the silver bullets we already have. As professionals more knowledgeable than me continually point out, our best bet is to strengthen health systems, focus on measurable improvements, admit and learn from failure, and – perhaps most importantly – have a little patience.

Pushing for Polio Eradication: Does a Vertical Approach Make Sense in a Horizontal World?

The global polio eradication effort suffered an unexpected setback this year.  An outbreak began in February in Tajikistan, which had not seen a case of polio in 19 years, and 452 cases have been confirmed as of August 5.1  From there, it has migrated to Russia, where it has infected seven individuals.1,2  Russia’s last confirmed case of polio was in 1996.  This outbreak is a discouraging reality check for a two-decade eradication effort that hovers on the edge of success but cannot quite seem to reach it.

Bill Gates administers an oral polio vaccine to a baby.
Image taken from the 2009 Annual Letter from Bill Gates. Available at: http://www.gatesfoundation.org/annual-letter/Pages/2009-polio-eradication.aspx

After the successful eradication of smallpox in 1979, global health organizations have pushed a similar “vertical” approach to eradicate other disease.3  The polio eradication campaign, which began in 1988, has been aggressively carried out with a similar mindset and has been largely successful.  Incidence has been reduced by over 99%, with less than 1,000 cases reported in the year 2000 compared to 350,000 in 1988.  In Africa, ten of the 15 previously polio countries re-infected in 2009 successfully halted their outbreaks.4  It is currently only endemic in Nigeria, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.2,4  For the last ten years, however, the initiative has “hovered on the verge of victory” without being able to reach it.5  There were 1,604 cases in 2009, and 576 cases have been confirmed globally so far this year.2  The effort has cost approximated $8.2 to date.3 

The long-standing fight against polio has raised an interesting discussion about this and similar approaches to public health: are singularly-focused health efforts such as disease eradication the best way to work toward health improvement?  Large scale donors, such as the Gates Foundation and Rotary, typically prefer these “vertical” strategies because the benefits seem clearer and more immediate; “horizontal” strategies, on the other hand, such as strengthening health systems, training workers, and increasing supplies, have less well-defined goals, and long-term change is much more difficult to measure.3  The ongoing struggle for polio eradication has re-energized this debate.  Global health stakeholders responded in June with a new Strategic Plan, which builds on findings from a recent independent evaluation of the eradication effort and proposes a combined approach of  area-specific strategies to target remaining reservoirs of polio and targeting health system weaknesses.4  This plan will hopefully inspire organizations working in the effort to make the final push toward wiping out polio for good.  When the plan was unveiled in Geneva, however, Dr. Margaret Chan of WHO called on the international funding community “stand tall for polio eradication,” reminding us that the effort can still falter in the face of economic crisis if funding lapses.  It will be interesting to see how much longer smallpox will stand alone on the list of eradicated diseases.