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Health Experts: One Last Push Needed to Eliminate Polio

  • Vidushi Sinha

The three countries where polio is still endemic - Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan - are conducting aggressive immunization campaigns to vaccinate more children against the disease. Experts say with India now polio-free and the total number of cases at the lowest level ever, this is an opportunity to change history and irradicate the disease entirely. To reinforce that commitment, many world leaders will be meeting in New York this month.

The oral polio vaccine has cut the number of polio cases worldwide by 99 percent since 1988. For the past 10 years, though, eliminating that last percent has remained a challenge.

Even though the total number of cases has declined, experts say every time they have knocked the virus out in one country, they have seen it pop up in another.

“We have the highest population immunity throughout the entire world right now, and we are really talking about just a few districts and a few countries with a population that has been missed for a fairly long period of time,” said Ellyn Ogden is worldwide polio eradication coordinator for the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Dr. Liam Donaldson, Britain's Chief Medical Officer, who is head of the World Health Organization's Independent Monitoring Board for polio eradication, spoke via Skype, and said the board is especially worried about Nigeria.

“So our good news is mixed with continuing concerns," said Donaldson. "The numbers were coming down, but over the last year we have seen a worrying increase in Nigeria. Polio in Nigeria isn’t just a problem for the population of Nigeria. A lot of the outbreaks that have occurred in other parts of Africa have been fed from epicenters in Nigeria, so that’s why it’s very important not just for Nigeria but for other parts of Africa, as well.”

Donaldson said polio eradication programs are not on track to stop polio virus transmission by 2012.

While polio eradication is urgent, Ogden said these last remaining reservoirs, such as Nigeria and Pakistan, make it difficult to put a date on success.

“It may not happen in the time frame that we are thinking or in the budget that we are thinking, it may take longer and cost more, but I think the effort and the nearness merit additional investments by donors and partners that it's still too early to give up on this ship," said Ogden.

Donaldson said that with 125 cases reported so far this year, one final push is needed to get polio eradication over the finish line.