The World Health Organization reports South Asia has slashed polio cases by nearly half. It says the three countries on the continent, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan, that still have polio are on target to end the disease by the end of the year.
Health Ministers and senior officials from Afghanistan, India and Pakistan are meeting at the World Health Organization to map out a plan for a final push to eradicate polio in South Asia this year.
The Head of WHO's Polio Eradication Program, David Heymann, says health ministers from the three countries had pledged to eradicate polio transmission by the end of last year. They did not succeed. But, he says they knocked the wind out of polio in all of those countries. And, now polio, he notes, is at the lowest level it has ever been.
"We were down to less than 200 cases of polio last year," he said. "Two hundred children paralyzed in these three countries. But, that is not sufficient. What we need to see is that that goes to zero sometime during this year, 2005. The target that the World Health Organization set in the year 2000 when the first target was missed is now 2005. We must interrupt transmission and stop polio in these three countries by the end of this year."
When the World Health Organization began its global polio eradication campaign in 1988, an estimated 350,000 children were paralyzed with this crippling disease. That figure dropped to just over 1,200 last year. Most of these cases are in Africa.
Dr. Heymann says he believes polio will be a thing of the past by the end of this year. But, only he says, if countries remain committed and show the political will to finish the job. As in Africa, he says the three Asian countries will mount synchronized campaigns where hundreds of millions of children under age five will be immunized against polio.
"The challenge is great especially in countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan which share a common border which is very porous, said David Heymann. "Actually, the polio that is in Afghanistan is polio that has its origins in Pakistan and which crosses the border very easily. And, people and goes over and infects people in Afghanistan. So, it is a very big challenge in Asia too to synchronize campaigns so that one country does not chase the virus from a highly immunized area to another country which is more lowly immunized."
The World Health Organization along with its partners UNICEF, the U.S. based Centers for Disease Control and Rotary International are planning over 20 additional immunization campaigns across the region this year.
WHO says the campaigns will involve millions of volunteers. They will fan out and go home-to-home from remote villages to the vast metropolitan slums. This, so as to reach all children under age five.