Why surveillance is so important to polio eradication

Surveillance workers

Amina Ismail, right, checks appointment registers for cases of polio – an essential part of surveillance efforts to trace this devastating disease. WHO/L.Dore

By Michael Zaffran, director of polio eradication for the World Health Organization

In a small health clinic in Tharaka Nithi, Kenya, Amina Ismail pours over a register documenting all of the doctors’ appointments from recent months, a nurse by her side. She is checking every record for symptoms of polio – the sudden onset, floppy arms and legs that signify acute flaccid paralysis.

As they work, she checks that the nurse knows what the symptoms are, and that she knows what she has to do if a child with acute flaccid paralysis is brought to the clinic. This detailed surveillance for polio, working hand in hand with those who know their communities best of all, has been the linchpin of the work of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI).

Surveillance officers like Amina work and volunteer around the world with one aim: the eradication of the poliovirus. Networks of health workers, traditional healers, religious leaders, teachers and parents have helped us identify paralyzed children; and then by testing their stool samples in laboratories, we can find out if polio was the cause. This information has enabled us to hold vaccination campaigns to rapidly increase immunity in places where the virus is circulating, to protect children against paralysis, and ultimately remove any hiding place for the virus so that it dies out. Once we have successfully done this everywhere in the world, polio will be eradicated.

We have never been so close to our goal of a polio-free world. There are just two countries left where the wild poliovirus is still circulating – Afghanistan and Pakistan. This means that the partners of the GPEI along with country governments, donors, civil society, and parents are working harder than ever before to make sure we know exactly where polio is, so that we can respond quickly to stop every strain of the virus.

Keeping surveillance efforts going in all countries is a huge undertaking requiring skill, vigilance, and continued funding if we are to achieve our goal.

Surveillance is one of the most important jobs done to eradicate polio. And today, as fewer countries actually have cases to be found through acute flaccid paralysis surveillance, new and innovative approaches are being used to find viruses even before they cause symptoms.

Kano, Nigeria
It is five thirty in the morning in Kano in the north of Nigeria. As the sun comes up and people begin to wake and gather at market stalls, in traffic jams, and by small fires on street corners, two men stand by an open sewage system. The men put on protective coats and gloves and carefully lower a small bucket down to collect a small amount of the slow-moving water. They package it carefully, take off their gloves, carefully place it in a cool-box and the sample begins its journey to the polio laboratory.

By testing water in the environment for the poliovirus, alarm bells can be sounded ahead of time if children in any area could be at risk.

As Director of Polio Eradication for WHO, I depend on thousands of people, including committed Rotarians, to vaccinate children, research new ways to deliver these vaccines, to plan and advocate, and to mobilize essential resources. Tracing every last poliovirus through surveillance is a crucial part of these efforts, showing us the symptoms so that we can prevent disease in the first place.

Keeping surveillance efforts going in all countries is a huge undertaking requiring skill, vigilance, and continued funding if we are to achieve our goal. And what a monumental achievement that will be – all future generations, free from the threat of polio.

Learn more about how you can help end polio

4 thoughts on “Why surveillance is so important to polio eradication

  1. When America had its polio epidemic, many people actually contracted the virus but their immune system took care of it! And most of those people hardly noticed a thing except maybe they had a temperature or felt a little ill and that was it.

    But if America’s water system and sewage treatment had been poor the epidemic would have been much worse. Because other diseases would have weakened the immune systems of the public via the poor sanitation above.
    1. It does not do much good to just check for the polio virus if you don’t monitor the water quality for other immune destructive and wreaking germs and viruses, was that kind of surveillance done?
    2. And how a community takes care of its human waste via sewage treatment also affects the immunity of the people there, and their ability to resist all diseases including polio.
    3. So are your people in the community also surveillance monitoring sanitation?
    —Because what good does it do a child to get a polio vaccination, and then be killed by another disease from a glass of water!


  2. Pingback: Why surveillance is so important to polio eradication | The Rotary Club of Carteret

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