Polio eradication: now more than ever, stop polio forever

15 January 2004

Photo: WHO/Jean-Marc Giboux
The world has a unique opportunity to end the crippling effects of polio forever. WHO/Jean-Marc Giboux

In 2004, the world has its best – and perhaps last – chance to stop polio forever. There is a historic, one-time only opportunity to stop transmission of poliovirus. If the world seizes this opportunity and acts immediately, no child will ever again know the crippling effects of this devastating disease.

After a fifteen-year effort that has galvanized more than 200 countries, 20 million volunteers, and an international investment of US$3 billion, the success or failure of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, the world’s largest public health campaign, is now within reach. Never before has the world been so close to success, with only six countries remaining polio-endemic.

On 15 January 2004, ministers of health from the six polio-endemic countries – Nigeria, India, Pakistan, Niger, Afghanistan and Egypt – publicly pledged an all-out effort to end a disease that in recent memory crippled more than a thousand children every day. Ministers gathered at WHO Headquarters to sign the Geneva Declaration for the Eradication of Poliomyelitis, marking a historic step toward stopping poliovirus transmission in their countries by the end of 2004.

Progress and opportunities

Tremendous progress has been made in the global fight against polio since 1988, when the World Health Assembly resolved to eradicate the disease. The number of polio cases worldwide has decreased from 350 000 in 1988, to under 700 cases in 2003. Three-quarters of all cases globally are linked to a handful of polio “hot spots” in Nigeria, Pakistan and India.

Progress towards eradication, 1988-2003
Pop-up feature showing progress towards global polio eradication.

In addition, despite the high infection season, transmission levels are at an all-time low in India, Egypt and Afghanistan. Following an epidemic that spread like wildfire in 2002, India’s success in reducing poliovirus transmission in 2003 demonstrates that with high quality vaccination campaigns, where every child is immunized with multiple doses, polio can be beaten.

Now more than ever

The world has a one-time chance to finish this job once and for all – to protect our collective investment.

-- Dr LEE Jong-wook, WHO Director-General

In 2004, the world will face unprecedented risks if it does not immediately rein in poliovirus. In western Uttar Pradesh in India for example, there are still new cases of polio. Poliovirus exports also pose an ever-present threat, particularly in West Africa. In 2003, a polio outbreak in Nigeria spread to neighbouring polio-free countries presenting a “grave public health threat” (see press release). Children in these countries are particularly vulnerable, as a lack of funds in some has resulted in a stop to immunization campaigns, leaving millions of children at risk of being infected by the devastating poliovirus.

The stakes could not be higher – or more urgent – for the entire world, most especially, its children. The next six months of vaccination activities will be pivotal to stopping transmission everywhere in 2004. These activities could seal the fate of the international community’s efforts to eliminate polio forever.

The final push

If the world is to secure its fifteen-year investment in polio eradication, and protect all children from the threat of this disease, each and every child under five must be reached with polio vaccine during upcoming campaigns in the key endemic countries.

Finishing the job: country action
Pop-up feature showing the intensified efforts by polio-endemic countries to stop polio transmission.

Never before has commitment and effort been so focused on this final push to rid the world of polio. Not only is the world on the verge of reaching a global health goal - the eradication of polio will also leave behind a legacy of what can be achieved through an extraordinary demonstration of global cooperation.

The Global Polio Eradication Initiative

The Global Polio Eradication Initiative is spearheaded by WHO, Rotary International, CDC and UNICEF. It includes:

- governments of countries affected by polio
- private foundations (e.g. the United Nations Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation)
- development banks (e.g. the World Bank)
- donor governments (e.g. Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America)
- the European Commission
- humanitarian and nongovernmental organizations (e.g. the International Red Cross and Red Crescent societies)
- corporate partners (e.g. Aventis Pasteur, De Beers)
- volunteers in developing countries.

From 1988-2005, an estimated 5 million people who would otherwise have been paralysed will be walking because of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. Through polio eradication efforts, a significant investment has been made in strengthening health service delivery systems in many countries. Hundreds of thousands of health workers have been trained, millions of volunteers have been mobilized to support immunization campaigns, and cold-chain transport equipment has been refurbished.


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