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Funding Shortfalls Threaten Polio Eradication

  • Vidushi Sinha

The World Health Organization says the global campaign to eradicate the polio virus is at a crossroad, and that a new round of private and public investments could make the difference between eventual success or failure. The WHO warns that a funding gap of more than $1 billion threatens the progress made so far in polio-endemic countries in Africa and Asia.

The WHO-sponsored World Health Assembly ended recentedly in Geneva, Switzerland, with the announcement of a new strategy to wipe out the polio virus forever. Organizers said global polio eradication has shifted into what they called "emergency mode"

“It's now shifted to really the relentless pursuit of the unvaccinated child - this is what the program is all about,” said Bruce Aylward, assistant director-general at the World Health Organization. Mass vaccination has ended the crippling neuro-muscular disease in many parts of the world. But where vaccination efforts have faltered, the disease has made a comeback. Now experts are calling for a new round of donor pledges to help combat the isolated outbreaks and transmission of wild polio virus happening in several Asian and African nations.

“There is some evidence that things are tipping in the right direction already - we have four countries reporting polio cases so far this year - that's the lowest number ever,” Aylward said.

“It took us 24 years to get there. It is one of those public health challenges where you have to stay vigilant. If you slack off a little bit, it could go back to 50 countries being endemic in half the time that it took us to get down to the levels where we are,” said. Dr. Orin Levine, executive director of the International Vaccine Access Center at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He says there is an urgent need to close the funding gap so that polio can be eradicated and its re-emergence in high-risk areas can be prevented.

“Once this funding gap is filled, it's really going to be frontline health workers and everybody locking arms together to make sure that we do really successful campaigns, even in places where security and trust has been a challenge,” Levine said.

WHO says it is so short of funds that it could be forced to suspend vaccine deliveries to some affected communities and might have to delay putting the emergency polio eradication plan into full swing.