DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The multibillion-dollar global effort to eradicate polio looks like it is in trouble. The disease was nearly wiped out, but now, cases are on the rise and are expected to climb in the coming months. There have been COVID lockdowns. Also, the Taliban has prevented vaccination drives in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and all this has left millions of children unvaccinated. Here's NPR's Jason Beaubien.
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: When the Global Polio Eradication Initiative began in 1988, roughly 350,000 kids a year were getting paralyzed from polio. By 2016, that number had been driven down to just 42 cases of any type of polio anywhere in the world. The only remaining reservoir of the original wild polio virus was in remote Taliban-controlled parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Polio looked like it was on the verge of extinction. But then rogue vaccine-derived strains started to become more and more of a problem. Now, they're turning up at levels never seen before, not just in Afghanistan and Pakistan but also across much of sub-Saharan Africa, Yemen, Malaysia and the Philippines.
MICHEL ZAFFRAN: 2020 has been a terrible year and will continue to be a terrible year.
BEAUBIEN: That's Michel Zaffran, the head of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative at the World Health Organization in Geneva. So far this year, officials have tallied nearly 800 cases of wild and vaccine-derived polio.
ZAFFRAN: The numbers are definitely up - dramatically up, I would say - both in terms of wild as well as vaccine-derived.
BEAUBIEN: Vaccine-derived polio is caused when the live oral polio vaccine gets shed into wastewater in places with poor sanitation. As the live virus from the vaccine starts to circulate on its own, it sometimes manages to become as virulent as the original virus it's supposed to protect against. On top of that issue, now there's the pandemic. In March, the WHO halted all polio immunization campaigns to make sure that vaccinators going door to door weren't spreading COVID. Zaffran says that order was lifted over the summer, but...
ZAFFRAN: As a result, 30 to 40 countries have not conducted mass immunization campaigns during that period. Up to 80 million children have been left unprotected. And during that time, the virus has taken deliberately to spread.
BEAUBIEN: Polio has spread the most dramatically this year in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Taliban, in the midst of fighting with ISIS and government forces, haven't allowed door-to-door polio vaccination drives for the last 28 months.
MOHAMMED MOHAMMEDI: Imagine the susceptible that you are building - 28 months. It's enormous.
BEAUBIEN: Mohammedi Mohammed (ph) is the head of immunization for UNICEF in Afghanistan. He says the number of kids susceptible to polio because they have not been vaccinated has grown dramatically, both because of the COVID lockdowns and the Taliban refusing to allow traditional polio drives. The number of polio cases in Afghanistan is higher now than at any time in the last two decades. And Mohammed says the situation is going to get worse before it gets better.
MOHAMMEDI: There is no way that polio will be eradicated in Afghanistan before the next five years.
BEAUBIEN: UNICEF and others are trying to still vaccinate children in the Taliban-controlled areas by expanding immunization drives for polio and other preventable diseases at health clinics and mosques.
Jason Beaubien, NPR News.
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