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WHO Says Polio Eradication Within Grasp

The World Health Organization held Wednesday a meeting in Geneva to devise strategies aimed at finishing the job of eradicating polio worldwide. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from WHO headquarters in Geneva that scientists, finance and health ministers agree it is technically feasible to rid the world of this crippling disease. .

When the World Health Organization kicked off the global polio eradication campaign in 1988, it set a deadline of 2005 for finishing the job. Most of the world now is polio free, but that goal has been missed. Polio remains in four countries -- Nigeria, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In opening the meeting, WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said the fight against polio needs an immediate surge of commitment.

But controversy is brewing in certain scientific circles that eradication may not be a realistic goal. Some scientists contend the best strategy is for countries to concentrate on controlling the spread of the disease through regular immunizations and emergency campaigns when needed.

U.S. Under-Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs, Paula Dobriansky, says this approach was discussed at the meeting and largely rejected.

She said, "It was indicated that the costs of undertaking a control strategy actually outweigh the benefits of pursuing a full-fledged eradication strategy, that it is essential to go forward with an eradication strategy… The majority embraced that approach and feel that it is within our grasp."

Government health officials as well as representatives of non-governmental organizations at the Wednesday meeting agreed to re-energize their commitment to rid the world of polio.

Assistant administrator for global health at the U.S. Agency for International Development, Kent Hill, says the interventions for eradicating polio are well known. The big need, he says, is to overcome donor fatigue.

He said, "Unlike smallpox, this turned out to be a tougher enterprise and I think people are coming to terms with that and then having got so close it takes a real sense of commitment to go ahead and finish the job."

Dr. Hill says delegates agree that success in eradicating polio will also require greater community involvement.

"We know that there is a problem in a lot of these countries in getting women into the homes to do the vaccinations, etc," he said.

"85 percent of the cases are in Islamic settings. They are among Muslims. One way forward is to engage more effectively…our Muslim friends in Islamic countries both in the funding aspect and in the leadership to really get their buy into this," he added.

A few years ago, northern Islamic States in Nigeria stopped vaccinating their children against polio claiming the vaccine caused infertility in girls. As a consequence, a number of neighboring countries that had been polio-free were re-infected with the virus.

Recently, a Pakistani community stopped polio immunizations for similar reasons. Polio experts are trying to allay these fears so that the eradication campaign can go forward.

Since the campaign against polio began in 1988, the international community has invested almost $5 billion in the global campaign against the disease. The World Health Organization estimates it will need $575 million more over the next two years, as well as political commitment, to eradicate polio completely.