New WHO Director-General steps up global polio eradication effort as Polio threatens other countries
As eradication enters ‘critical phase’, SARS expert David Heymann appointed Representative of the Director-General for Polio Eradication
Geneva - New WHO Director-General Dr LEE Jong-wook today announced plans to rapidly step up the global effort to eradicate polio, as the programme enters a critical phase. From the end of August to December, the key endemic countries will conduct mass immunization campaigns aimed at reaching a total of 175 million children. Success in eradicating polio depends on the success of these campaigns in India, Nigeria, Pakistan and Egypt.
“Polio eradication is a top priority. I want to see this disease gone once and for all. We have eliminated it from almost every country in the world. Now is the time to boost our action and resolve, and wipe it out everywhere,” Dr Lee said. “I am immediately upgrading WHO’s capacity to support India, Nigeria, Pakistan and Egypt in their efforts to immunize every child against polio.”
Dr Lee has announced his office has taken direct oversight of polio eradication activities, and he has appointed Dr David Heymann, who led the team which stopped the SARS outbreak, as the Representative of the Director-General for Polio Eradication.
“Just as with SARS, polio knows no boundaries,” commented Heymann. “In January, a child was paralysed by polio in Lebanon for the first time in ten years. That virus travelled from India. Unless we stop transmission in the remaining polio-endemic countries, polio will spread to other countries and paralyse children, potentially reversing the gains already made.” In the past 12 months, polio viruses have also spread from Nigeria to neighbouring countries which had been polio-free.
Commitment needed from all levels Critical to the success of the upcoming campaigns is subnational political engagement in India, Nigeria, Pakistan and Egypt, which together account for 99% of new cases – most of these in just a few states or provinces. “For polio campaigns to reach every child, state and district-level governments must be committed and engaged,” Dr Lee commented. “Only then can poliovirus transmission be interrupted.”
Dr Lee stressed that with sufficient political engagement, all children in any country can be reached during immunization campaigns. He praised Angola, which has today successfully completed a nationwide campaign covering nearly five million children in three days. “Four years ago, 1000 children were paralysed in Angola by polio, and outbreaks in other parts of Africa were traced back to that country. Despite the challenges, the Government of Angola has done all the right things, and as a result it has been nearly two years since the country reported its last polio case.”
Commitment needed from all countries Dr Lee added, however, that political leaders of wealthy countries have an equally strong role to play in eradicating polio. “We face a funding gap of US$ 210 million for activities through 2005,” he said. “I was heartened by recent statements of commitment expressed by G8 governments at their Summits in Kananaskis and Evian.” Subsequently, Canada, Japan, Russia and the United Kingdom have committed US$ 95 million in additional funds. But Dr Lee urged other G8 countries to contribute funds as well. “If we don’t have sufficient funds, we will have to cancel these critical immunization campaigns and cut back surveillance,” he warned.
“We have a great opportunity,” Dr Lee concluded. “For the first time this century, we can eradicate a terrible disease from our planet. Together, if we all step up our efforts, we can attain this global public good and ensure no child will ever again know the pain of polio paralysis.”
The Global Polio Eradication Initiative is spearheaded by WHO, Rotary International, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and UNICEF. The poliovirus is now circulating in only seven countries, down from over 125 when the Global Polio Eradication Initiative was launched in 1988. The seven countries with indigenous wild poliovirus are: India, Nigeria, Pakistan, Egypt, Afghanistan, Niger and Somalia.