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WHO Official: 'Close to Wiping Out Polio, But Obstacles Remain'

A social worker gives polio drops to children from al-Muniera village in Madani, FILE November 18, 2007.
DAKAR - The world is closer than ever to eradicating polio, says the World Health Organization. At the same time funding shortages are threatening the vast progress made worldwide to prevent the disease. The funding gap has forced the cancellation of vaccination drives in more than 20 countries. Our reporter spoke with Bruce Aylward, WHO’s assistant director-general for polio eradication, who says the organization has about half of the $2.2 billion it needs over the next 24 months to carry out a global emergency action plan.

Nancy Palus: "Given how the polio infection is spread, what is the significance of missing a round of vaccinations as happened recently in countries around the world, including 15 African countries?"

Bruce Aylward: "Every time we skip a round of vaccinations we are gambling with the incredible achievements so far in polio eradication. This is particularly the case in West Africa and Central Africa, because in these areas the routine immunization systems are weak. Right now the virus is really hemmed in into the northern part of Nigeria, in a very small area; so if we can keep vaccinating the surrounding countries while we can get transmission finished in northern Nigeria, we will be successful. That’s the recipe for success."

NP: "What’s the next step? What must be done to address the gap and is there enough funding to do so?"

BA:" Well the first thing that we’re going to try and do is a scaled-back smaller campaign across the southern part of Niger, across Mali and parts of Burkina Faso, to keep immunity boosted in that highest-risk area right around Nigeria. At the same time we’re getting the message out to all our major donors and partners of the importance of doing full campaigns across at least nine West African countries surrounding Nigeria in the September-October period. We hope that the donors come back with sufficient resources to do the whole thing and do it properly."

NP: "Why are you seeing funding shortages for this?"

BA:"Well the funding situation reflects the global economic situation. Many of our donors, especially the private sector and especially some of our key donors like Rotary International have actually stepped up their financing of the program. We’ve also seen the infected countries like Nigeria putting over $30 million into the program this year. The problem is that the G8 countries, the non-G8 OECD countries, the European traditional donors - their economies are hurting, and that pain is getting passed on to the program."

NP: "One might think that, well, we’re down to 67 cases in the world and that’s great progress. You’ve said in the past, though, that getting it down to just a few cases simply isn’t enough when it comes to polio. Could you explain that?"

BA: "Polio is not a disease that you can control at very low levels. It’s what we call an epidemic-prone disease. So we might get it down to low levels, we might get a false sense that this disease can be controlled at low levels. But as more and more children are missed by vaccination or grow up without exposure to this virus, we will see more and more potential for big epidemics. And the virus teaches us this repeatedly. In the last few years we saw some particularly concerning reminders of this, in the Congo, in China, in Tajikistan - we had big epidemics, after years of being polio-free, when the virus got back into these areas. Reminding us again that the situation is like a tinderbox and if a spark of polio gets into a polio-free area, it will blow up again. If we don’t finish polio everywhere, the world will again be infected, with hundreds of thousands of children paralyzed every single year."