Honoring Frontline Polio Workers

Gro Harlem Bruntland, a frontline health worker, and the perm reps from India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria at UN Foundation gala dinner


The United Nations Association held its annual Global Leadership Awards Dinner last night. The honorees included, Malala Yousavzai, former UN Foundation President Sen. Tim Wirth, Girls Rising, Ambassador Samantha Power, GE Africa…and one group who are putting their lives on the line everyday in the service of humanity: frontline polio workers.

False rumors about the vaccine and insinuations by the Taliban that vaccines are a nefarious foreign plot have undermined the effort in Pakistan and elsewhere against the disease. These rumors were no doubt spurred by news that the CIA used a vaccination campaign as a ruse to gather intelligence about Osama bin Laden.

The health workers who go house to house to administer oral polio drops are mostly women drown from the community. Yet they have become targeted in what appears to be a systematic and planned campaign of terror, assassination and violence. At least a dozen polio workers have been killed in Pakistan this year. The latest attack occurred one month ago when two workers were killed in a bombing at their office in Pehsawar.

Despite grave personal risk, these women are still visible in their community, working everyday to prevent the spread of polio. Their efforts are paying off. Twenty years ago there were hundreds of thousands of polio cases around the world. In 2012, there were just 223. The number of endemic countries is now down to 3: Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria.  In a show of solid political support last night, the UN Ambassadors from these countries, plus India –which eradicated Polio three years ago — stood on stage with an Indian polio worker to accept the award.

Polio is that it spreads easily. Until it is stamped out in places where it remains endemic, we can expect it to pop up elsewhere. Just last week the World Health Organization confirmed an outbreak in Syria, purportedly from a polio strain imported from Pakistan. Health workers in Syria now must cross battle lines to make sure that coverage is sufficient to contain this outbreak.

The health workers who are on the front lines of the fight against polio are not only fighting the disease in their community, but providing an invaluable service on behalf of humanity. Vaccinating children in Pakistan means children in Damascus, Mogadishu and even New York are at a lower risk of contracting the crippling disease.

“I don’t use the term hero lightly,” UNICEF director Anthony Lake said in prepared remarks delivered by former WHO director Gro Harlem Bruntland. “These polio workers are giving their lives so children may be spared. What can be more heroic?”