UBC’s Richard Lester discusses why polio was declared a global health emergency and how to eradicate it once and for all
Last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the spread of polio a global health emergency. Dr. Richard Lester, assistant clinical professor in UBC’s Division of Infectious Diseases and the new director of UBC’s Neglected Global Diseases Initiative, discusses the setbacks in the fight against polio, why eradication is so important, and how mobile phone technology can help.
The WHO just declared polio to be an “extraordinary event.” What does this mean?
The goal in polio eradication is to contain the virus to its remaining localities and to work towards elimination from there. What is extraordinary about recent events is that there has been a documented spread of polio infections from three countries where cases are known to persist – Cameroon, Pakistan, and Syria – across international borders to Equatorial Guinea, Afghanistan and Iraq, respectively. This is a setback after decades of progress and the WHO is rightly bringing attention to this issue to assist in global coordination and to help give the mandate to the countries involved to step up polio control efforts.
Is it possible to completely eradicate a disease like polio?
One of the most powerful tools for eradicating infectious diseases from humanity are vaccines, and luckily there are a number of effective vaccines available for polio. As we’ve seen with smallpox, which was declared eradicated in 1979, eliminating infectious scourges globally is possible, but there are many challenges.
In the case of polio, the remaining regions where it exists have complex political and social environments, including insecurity for healthcare workers and volunteers working on the immunization campaigns. Although challenging, working toward eradication has many benefits in the long run. Billions of dollars have already been spent on eradication efforts and the WHO maintains its Endgame Strategic Plan of polio eradication by 2018. Once an infection is eradicated, the majority of those resources can be put toward other health priorities.
You are leading the innovative use of mobile phones to help halt the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa. Can we use technology to help stop the spread of polio?
Definitely. One of my PhD students, Momin Kazi, has developed a mobile phone-based vaccine monitoring tool that was used to monitor household polio vaccination rates in Karachi, Pakistan. They were able to monitor over 300,000 homes with far fewer outreach workers on the ground, bypassing security issues and demonstrating results similar to standard WHO methods of monitoring. This is just one example. The low cost and convenience of mobile communication technologies make them more ‘equalizing’ than any previous technology.