NEW YORK – Last month, world governments and other donors pledged $1.2 billion to help carry the 30-year fight to eradicate polio over the finish line. At its height, the polio epidemic caused 350,000 cases of paralysis in children every year. Last year, only 37 cases were reported. So far this year, the number stands at six.
But as momentous as these gains are, victory over polio is not yet assured. And one factor – the role of female vaccinators – will be a critical determinant of success.
Women have long been on the front lines of the global effort to end polio. In places like the tribal areas of Pakistan, male vaccinators are often not allowed to enter a stranger’s home, whereas female health workers can deliver the vaccine to vulnerable children, along with other routine immunizations and basic health services.
In 2015, I traveled to neighboring India to take part in a national immunization campaign, joining an all-female team of health workers assigned to administer the polio vaccine to children in an impoverished part of New Delhi. I accompanied a local health worker, Deepika, on my crutches, as I have been crippled by polio myself.