|Press Release WHA/6
19 may 1999
INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY CALLS ON WHO DIRECTOR-GENERAL TO LEAD THE FINAL ASSAULT ON POLIO52nd World Health Assembly: 17 - 25 May 1999
GENEVA- As Ministers of Health from Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo described the toll of polio on the children in their war-torn countries, the US Secretary of Health led an international call on the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) to bring the war on polio to its successful conclusion. Rotary International, the leading private sector partner in this global initiative, immediately offered its 1.4 million volunteers to the Director-General as "foot soldiers" in this campaign.
The international call to accelerate the eradication effort came at an extraordinary meeting of governments of key polio-endemic and donor countries on the opening day of Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland's first World Health Assembly (WHA) since taking office. Dr Brundtland called the meeting to establish even closer coordination between key players for the 'home stretch'.
All countries represented at the meeting, which included those that face the greatest challenges, firmly stated that the year 2000 target could be met. Both endemic and donor countries pledged their commitment to implement the necessary activities. The meeting anticipates a WHA resolution scheduled for Friday 21 May urging all member states to accelerate the initiative to eradicate polio by the end of the year 2000.
Countries represented include Angola and DR Congo (countries affected by conflict); Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India, Nigeria, Pakistan ('global reservoirs' of intense poliovirus transmission), and countries of particular strategic importance to the eradication effort -- Egypt, Turkey and Russia, the last of which has been polio-free for over one year.
Dr Brundtland pointed to remarkable progress made in polio eradication in past months. But the recent polio outbreak in Angola; the risk of complacency in the 'home stretch' of this initiative, and the difficulty of mobilizing additional resources in the face of a disappearing disease, now made it necessary to refocus efforts to finish the job.
"Poliovirus is now on the verge of extinction," she said. "We have travelled farther and faster than many would have predicted.
"But one of the paradoxes of an eradication initiative is that control efforts must be intensified as the disease disappears. We need to accelerate house-to-house delivery of the vaccine .. and continue negotiations with warring parties, and we need to improve surveillance systems so that every paralyzed child is investigated for polio and we can confidently say that countries, regions and eventually the entire world are polio-free."Notable successes in recent months have been the massive house-to-house delivery of vaccines to millions of children in high-risk areas in Pakistan and Nigeria. As a result of government efforts in Egypt, India and Turkey, there have also been dramatic improvements in surveillance to detect and investigate every paralyzed child for polio in these countries.
The meeting agreed plans of action based on technical consultations between WHO and governments. Massive house-to-house immunization campaigns will be conducted in the reservoir and conflict-affected countries through the year 2001. In India alone, the number of National Immunization Days may be doubled to four rounds, conducted from October 1999 through January 2001, each round targeting 130 million children. In addition, by the end of 1999 all countries will improve disease surveillance and polio laboratories to reach the standard necessary to be certified polio-free.
Rotary International, UNICEF, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (USA), and the governments of Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, UK and USA were among donors present to discuss funding requirements, calculated to total US$ 500 million.
WHO is spearheading the international effort to eradicate polio by the end of the year 2000. As a result of mass immunization campaigns that reach hundreds of millions of children each year, the number of cases worldwide has fallen by 85 percent in ten years -- from 35,000 in 1988 to 5,673 in 1998. Just a few vaccine drops guarantee a child life-long protection against the disease. In 1991, the last case in the western hemisphere was found in Peru. In 1997, the last case in the WHO Western Pacific region that includes China was found in Cambodia.
Polio eradication relies on four strategies: high routine immunization coverage with Oral Polio Vaccine; National Immunization Days which reach all children under five in a single day; effective surveillance for Acute Flaccid Paralysis and wild poliovirus; house-to-house immunization known as "mopping-up" campaigns.
For further information, journalists can contact Mr Valery Abramov, Public Relations, WHO, Geneva. Telephone (41 22) 791 2543. Fax (41 22) 791 4858. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org or Ms Becky Owens, Polio Eradication Initiative, WHO ,Geneva. Telephone (41 22) 791 3832. Email: email@example.com
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