Medical officer, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), on loan to the World Health Organization (WHO)
Best known for: Experts doubted whether polio could be eradicated in India because of the country’s large, diverse population. The disease persisted in the poorest and hardest-to-reach communities with the worst sanitation and water quality.
Two years ago, however, India was declared polio-free — in large part because of the dedicated work of Jafari, who managed a massive public health initiative between India’s government and WHO. Jafari directed a staff of more than 2,300 and oversaw the delivery of about 1 billion doses of polio vaccine to 172 million young children annually from 2008 to 2011. Many of these children were from migrant families or were living in difficult, high-risk areas.
Case reports ranged from 559 to 874 a year from 2006 to 2009, about 43 percent of confirmed cases worldwide. In January 2011, no cases were reported, and a year later, India completed a 12-month period without a single occurrence. The next month, India was removed from the list of polio-endemic countries.
Polio is a contagious viral illness that affects mainly children and can cause paralysis, difficulty breathing and sometimes death. In the late 1940s and the early 1950s, it disabled about 35,000 people each year in the United States. With the widespread use of vaccines developed in the 1950s, the United States became polio-free by 1979.
Colleagues credit Jafari with bringing energy and fresh thinking to the National Polio Surveillance Project in India, including innovative solutions such as providing vaccinations at bus stops and on trains and finding ways to reach the children of migrant workers and those in flood-prone areas. To reach the critical population of newborns, he had workers routinely go house to house to make sure infants were vaccinated. The program required visits to more than 60 million homes several times a year and about 2.3 million vaccinators. Surveys confirm that 99 percent of children in the remotest and highest-risk areas are now protected from the disease.
Government work: Jafari joined the CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service in 1992 and has devoted 16 of his 21 years there to polio eradication, working in Egypt, Pakistan and India. He has held leadership positions, including serving as director of the CDC’s Global Immunization Division. He is currently director of the WHO’s global polio eradication and research unit in Geneva.
Motivation for service: Jafari has long had an interest in international health and infectious diseases, and he was deeply affected by the devastating impact of polio in India and other nations. He says he found it heartbreaking to watch infants become paralyzed and die. “When you see the impact on individuals and families, it just motivates you to get rid of the virus,” Jafari said.
Biggest challenge: Designing a vaccination system for India that would reach tens of millions of children in poor, remote areas, including those in flood-prone regions and those who were part of migrant families.
Quote: “It has been almost three years with no cases of polio in India. It was very exciting to be part of eliminating a very significant disease — a life-destroying virus.”
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