I was pleased to see Alanna Shaikh comment on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s generous gift, and critical commitment to help us move closer to global polio eradication. Ms. Shaikh noted in her commentary, there are Muslim populations which have been reluctant to take advantage of the polio vaccine, due to false rumors that it may lead to infertility or the spread of HIV. It is these misconceptions which make the efforts of Saudi Arabia to dispel myths and require vaccination for every Haj Pilgrim momentous.
To be clear, while no vaccine is infallible, the benefits of the polio vaccine far outweigh its risks. In the last ten years, more than 10 billion doses of the vaccine have been given and have protected against a life of misery. Of these ten billion people who are now protected from the wild polio virus, 383 of them contracted vaccine-derived polio. That amounts to a risk of less than one in 10 million. With this ratio in mind, I believe that it would be difficult to for anyone to suggest that to make the vaccine mandatory for Haj Pilgrims is to put them at additional risk.
In the 1980s, polio paralyzed at least 1,000 children EVERY DAY all over the world. Due to polio vaccine efforts during the last ten years, the wild polio virus has taken a greatly reduced toll. In 2008, there were only 1,300 cases for the entire year, worldwide. Today, after international efforts to immunize every child everywhere, five million people are walking who would otherwise be paralyzed and the world is almost polio-free. Polio remains endemic in four countries—Nigeria, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. We are hopeful that this directive from Saudi Arabia, will be one of the final, crucial steps toward eliminating polio globally.
Dan Carucci is the VP of Global Health at the UN Foundation