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Polio Eradication Effort Faces Funding Shortfall

October 24th is World Polio Day. Since 1988, national governments, public health organizations and civic organizations have slashed the number of polio cases by more than 99 percent. But now the eradication program faces a funding shortage and all of those gains could be lost. VOA's Carol Pearson has an update on where the world stands in the fight against polio.

Nearly 20 years ago, when the nations of the world decided to combat polio globally, the polio virus paralyzed 1,000 children every day. It afflicted those living in 125 countries on five continents.

The disease has been eradicated even in war zones such as Iraq.

Since 1988, the World Health Organization says more than two billion children have been immunized thanks to the efforts of millions of immunization volunteers, some of whom risk their lives. Iraq has been polio-free for seven years.

The immunization campaigns are supported by national governments, the World Health Organization, the United Nations Children's Fund, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a humanitarian organization -- Rotary International.

Countries have staged National Immunization Days and warring factions have observed "days of peace" so children can receive two drops of the oral polio vaccine.

The idea is to catch children who have not been immunized and boost the immunity in those who have had the vaccine.

Polio now exists mostly in only four countries: Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and Nigeria.

But a new case in Sudan has health officials conducting a countrywide immunization campaign to keep polio at bay, and prevent it from again spreading to other countries.

The country with the greatest number of polio cases is Nigeria, with 56 percent of the world's cases.

Amina Mohammed-Baloni, the UNICEF coordinator in Nigeria, says, "The importance of this campaign can not be overemphasized, because the momentum gained by the end of year with the current immunization-plus days has to be sustained if there is going to be a break in transmission of polio case."

Dr. Jon Andrus worked on eradication campaigns in Central and South America and in India with the World Health Organization. He says that when Nigeria interrupted the immunization campaign a few years ago (2003), the virus mutated. "So when there's low coverage the virus can mutate and re-establish itself."

Dr. Andrus says the only remedy is to continue the vaccinations and keeping the numbers of those vaccinated as high as possible. But the campaign is running into problems.

Dr. Andrus says civil strife in Afghanistan and Pakistan prevents vaccinators from reaching the children. And then, there is a funding gap he says, "The global program right now is looking at a $60 million deficit -- a resource gap in order just to do the activities for the rest of the year. That's a huge, huge burden, and I hope that donor countries, donor agencies and with continued support that Rotary has given over the years, that we can get a revitalized injection of new resources so the program can do its job and not be constantly challenged with insufficient funding."

Polio spreads most easily where people live in crowded, unsanitary conditions. While these conditions may not be entirely eliminated, if the polio eradication campaign is successful, health officials can then work to eradicate other diseases.