A health worker gives a polio vaccine to a child at a school in Lahore, Pakistan, Monday, Feb. 17, 2020. Pakistan government…
FILE - A health worker gives a polio vaccine to a child at a school in Lahore, Pakistan, on Feb. 17, 2020.

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - Millions could face increased risk of acquiring debilitating and life-threatening diseases if the United States permanently withdraws from the World Health Organization, experts contacted by VOA said.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s said this month he was suspending U.S. payments to the WHO, accusing it of failing to quickly alert the world of the seriousness of the coronavirus.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggested that this halt might not be temporary, telling the U.S. Fox News network on April 23, “It may be the case that the United States can never return to underwriting, having U.S. taxpayer dollars go to the WHO.”

The WHO has for decades worked with member nations through immunization campaigns to eradicate viruses that could be fatal or cause lifelong paralysis.

In the Philippines, the international organization and its affiliates in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, a public-private partnership that includes the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have made vaccinations for the highly communicable disease widely available and are currently addressing a limited outbreak that began in September -- the first there in nearly 20 years.

Clara Francisco, who heads the Persons with Disabilities Affairs Office in the Philippine city of Tacloban, said polio vaccinations are now mandatory, unlike the situation when she contracted the virus as a child.

“The vaccine is available in health centers and government hospitals and people who are considered poorest of the poor are provided with vaccines free of charge,” the 45-year-old wrote in a text message to VOA.

FILE - A girl shows her ink-marked finger after having a polio vaccine in Lahore, Pakistan, Dec. 16, 2019.

The WHO reports that new polio cases worldwide have dropped 99 percent since 1988, but it warns that endemic viral transmissions in Afghanistan and Pakistan still could infect around 200,000 people each year without preventative measures.

Jerome Kim, director general of the Seoul-based International Vaccine Institute, which collaborates with the WHO on some disease prevention programs, said a U.S. withdrawal from the WHO would create shortfalls across the board, including projects to mitigate infectious diseases that could cause disability.

“One of the reasons you use vaccines is to prevent these problems,” Kim said.

Kim said that, as a coordinating body, the WHO works with member nations to implement vaccination projects and offers technical expertise that is essential for many small developing countries without adequate health care systems.

The organization also advises on treatment for congenital or chronic conditions that cause disability and provides guidance on technology and rehabilitation services.

In the case of a U.S. withdrawal, the WHO might need to “prioritize what they can and cannot fund,” which could “increase difficulties for people with disabilities,” Kim said.

He added that COVID-19 also has the potential to cause lasting impairments brought on from strokes and lung damage.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus in the Rose Garden of the White House, on April 27, 2020, in Washington, D.C.

The Trump administration accuses the WHO of enabling China to cover up the initial outbreak of the new coronavirus, which is believed to have first appeared late last year in Wuhan.

The White House says it will suspend funding for up to 90 days while a review of American support for the WHO is underway.

According to data available on the WHO’s budget web portal, the U.S. assessed contribution was nearly $237,000 in 2019, the largest membership fee paid of any country. Washington also pledged an additional $73 million to fund projects, including polio eradication, access to health services, and vaccine-preventable diseases.

The WHO did not respond to VOA’s request for comment on this story.

Adam Kamradt-Scott a global health security expert at the University of Sydney, said that “China will have to answer” for why it waited several weeks to notify the WHO about the first reported coronavirus infections in Wuhan instead of the mandated 24-hour period.

“That’s not to say there aren’t problems with the WHO,” he adds.

He said because member countries compete for influence and resources within the organization, the WHO is “inherently political” but said that based on its structure, it acted “appropriately and (in a) timely (fashion)” in addressing the emergence of COVID-19.

“President Trump’s attacks on the WHO are an attempt to divert attention away from his own administration’s failure to contain the outbreak,” he said.

Kamradt-Scott said that if the U.S. withdraws from the WHO, it could lead to the “rapid deescalation and demobilization of several major global health programs.”

Without other members stepping in to “fill the gap” left by the United States, he said the deficit could cause an increase in preventable disabilities as well as cost lives mainly in the “most poor and vulnerable” communities.   

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