A few decades ago, the world was grappling with a major health crisis. Polio, a viral disease, was rife and resulted in the paralysis of hundreds of thousands of children around the world each year. In 1988, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) was launched to fight the disease. At that time, polio was present in more than 125 countries and was responsible for paralyzing around 1,000 children every day

However, the tide turned with implementation of widespread immunization efforts, reaching nearly 3 billion children. This led to a staggering 99% decrease of polio cases, according to the Gates Foundation

The virus is now confined to a few regions in Pakistan and Afghanistan. As of 2020, the entire African region became the fifth region to be certified free of wild poliovirus, according to the World Health Organization (WHO)

It’s important to acknowledge the pivotal role of community health workers around the world, who are predominantly women, in this fight. Their diverse and multifaceted roles have been instrumental in safeguarding children from polio, contributing significantly to the progress in eradicating the disease. The world is now on the cusp of eradicating the disease entirely, thanks to the power of immunization. 

Despite this progress, failing to stop wild polio transmission in Pakistan and Afghanistan could trigger a global resurgence of the disease. If this happens, we could see up to 200,000 new cases of polio each year within the next decade, according to a WHO report titled "Polio Eradication Strategy 2022–2026"

You may be wondering what’s stopping us from passing the finishing line and eradicating polio globally for good? Conflicts, misinformation and opposition to vaccines stand in the way. The COVID-19 pandemic also added to the challenge, as polio vaccination efforts were halted, causing millions of children to miss routine vaccinations.

However, there is still hope for a polio-free world. On April 28, 2024, Saudi Arabia pledged $500 million over five years to support the Global Polio Eradication Initiative’s (GPEI) efforts to vaccinate 370 million children against polio and strengthen health systems. This announcement marks a significant increase in funding for the global effort to eradicate polio.

The global fight to eradicate polio may seem distant and abstract. However, with the use of  virtual reality (VR) technology, this distance can be bridged. Polio's Last Mile, a VR experience developed by REM5 Studios with the support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is not just an immersive experience. It's a powerful tool that aims to educate, engage, and most importantly, inspire its users to join the fight against polio. It offers a unique opportunity to step into the shoes of community workers fighting polio in Zambia, providing life-saving polio shots to children all across the country. 

Amir Berenjian, the co-founder and CEO of REM5 Studios and Brian Skalak, Director at REM5 Studios, spoke to Global Citizen about their latest project, an immersive and interactive experience that takes users on an emotional journey to a polio vaccination campaign in Zambia. Berenjian and his team have been in the immersive technology space for almost a decade, always focused on leveraging technology for social good and elevating learning and development.

What is the inspiration behind Polio’s Last Mile?

Berenjian: Our goal is to make the tech fade away into the background and let the user focus on the story, content, purpose, and call to action. The primary goal of the project is to build advocacy and support for the mission of polio eradication and emotionally connect people to the mission, whether it's volunteers, people, rotary members, or a Ministry of Finance.

What’s the potential for VR technology in the global health sector?

Skalak: When we attended the World Bank Spring Meetings in Washington, DC, we were able to demo the Polio’s Last Mile VR experience to representatives from a various of organizations present, such as UNICEF, Rotary, and Gavi. We were thrilled that during the showcase, many attendees asked the question: "What else could we do with something like this?" Polio’s Last Mile is just the first chapter of a series of immersive experiences that we would love to produce. 

One of the compelling cases for the next project using VR technology could be to show how malaria is similar in struggle and yet different in approach [to polio]. The immersive experience would allow people to put on a headset and learn about the issues. This could be tailored to different audiences. We hope to build a larger experience that will have great content that levels up to a lot of similar shared goals across organizations all over the planet. 

Berenjian: VR is a more natural and accessible piece of technology than any of its predecessors. While it may seem intimidating on the surface, putting on a VR headset and transporting oneself to a location like Zambia is an experience that anybody can have, regardless of their tech expertise. Traditional methods of communication like YouTube videos or TikTok clips can only hold people's attention for a short period of time, whereas VR can immerse users in an environment and hold their undivided attention for 10 minutes or more. By seeing and feeling the effort that goes into vaccinating millions of children, users can develop a deeper appreciation for the cause and be more likely to take action to support the fight against polio.

How did you develop the experience?

Shalak: In October 2023, we used a 360 degrees camera to document the polio campaign in Zambia. We filmed at various locations, including just outside the city center of Zambia's capital city Lusaka. The footage gives viewers a fly-on-the-wall perspective of vaccination efforts and highlights the vital role of community workers in the fight against polio. Despite challenges like overheating cameras and large file sizes, the team overcame technical difficulties and walked for hours in the scorching Zambian heat to create a stunning VR experience. 

Berenjian: Being in an environment where volunteers walk 10 miles a day going door to door to vaccinate children put things into perspective and was part of the beauty of the mission.

Why is it important to spotlight community health workers?

Skalak: Meeting the field teams on the ground was the most profound part of the entire trip. There were tens of thousands of teams like those they met, doing the same work across the country. These teams were mostly volunteers who wanted to keep their communities safe from polio to ensure a prosperous future.

Berenjian: The tone of the experience was designed to celebrate the individuals who are relentlessly fighting on the ground to eradicate polio, rather than having a somber tone. We wanted to highlight the hard work and dedication of these individuals and celebrate their achievements.

What’s next for the team?

Skalak: We plan to showcase the project at Rotary International in Singapore and continue working with the Gates Foundation and other partners to create more immersive experiences. We’re democratizing the experience and have 900 8th graders visiting our physical location in Minneapolis to experience the VR unit. We're also launching an online immersive museum to make the experience more accessible.

Learn more about the experience by visiting the website. To experience the VR, you can either use the non-VR headset alternative option or download Polio’s Last Mile app via Meta if you have your own Meta Quest 3 or Meta Quest Pro headset.

We tried Polio’s Last Mile VR experience. This is what it was like.

It was my first time using a virtual reality headset and it was a significant improvement from previous virtual experiences like 3D glasses at the cinema. The VR headset was comfortable over my glasses and provided an interactive, educational, and visually stunning experience through 360-degree video and augmented reality. I gained insight into the global progress in eradicating polio, witnessing firsthand the impactful work of community workers and volunteers administering life-saving polio shots to children in a local community in Zambia's capital Lusaka. This experience provided an emotional connection, spotlighting those on the frontlines of the global fight to eradicate polio.


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