The Circus that Saves Lives

By Susannah Rosenblatt

January 16, 2018

The end of polio has never been closer.

In a dusty village, a group of children juggle and tumble on an improvised stage. The young performers draw a crowd of curious kids, with one actor pretending to be a snake in a bright green costume. The show might seem fun, but the subject matter is serious: polio.

The Afghan Mobile Mini Circus for Children is a UNICEF-supported effort to help fight polio across the mountainous nation, one of just three in the world where the devastating disease still circulates among people.


“We are trying to build trust and momentum around why we need to vaccinate our kids,” said Melissa Corkum, UNICEF team leader on polio eradication, in an interview with NBC News.

The global fight against polio has made astounding progress in the last 30 years: in 1988, there were 350,000 cases of polio worldwide. There were just 21 wild poliovirus cases in 2017, confined to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Polio, spread through infected stool and water, mostly affects children under five and can lead to paralysis or death. Polio is at particular risk of spreading in areas with poor sanitation, such as temporary encampments or conflict zones.

The circus trains kids and teenagers from Kabul in juggling, acrobatics, and theater. Some of the performers are refugees; the 14-year-old group provides the children schooling during the day and circus training outside of class. Performers travel to internally displaced persons camps and remote communities to bring their lifesaving message to families in an entertaining, memorable way. During the show, children are able to receive critical vaccinations from health workers in the crowd.


Onstage, the “snake,” which represents polio, shouts as the young audience watches wide-eyed. A hero equipped with vaccines defeats the snake to cheers.

“We pass on these important messages in a fun way, which people listen to and they understand,” group leader Hamid told the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.  

The public-private initiative, with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Rotary International, UNICEF, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Health Organization, has marshaled US $14 billion and deployed 20 million volunteers to help fight polio globally. Thanks to this massive effort, 2.5 billion children have been reached. And, 16 million today are walking who would have been paralyzed by polio.

A human disease has been wiped from the planet only once before, with the eradication of smallpox in 1980 after a worldwide vaccination campaign. The end of polio has never been closer.

Take Action Challenge

  • Donate here to support the world’s fight against polio.  We’ve never been closer to wiping out this terrible disease for good!
  • You can also learn more about other vaccine-preventable diseases here.

Header photo: UNICEF/GPEI 

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