WHO Says a Polio-Free World Within Grasp

In marking World Polio Day, advocates for a polio-free world are urging nations to commit to a new five-year strategy to eradicate this crippling disease and consign it to the trash bin of history.

An estimated 350,000 children were paralyzed by polio when the World Health Organization launched its Global Polio Eradication Initiative in 1988. In the world today, polio is endemic only in Pakistan, and Afghanistan. So far this year, 29 cases have been recorded, putting the possibility of a polio-free world within reach.

The WHO notes the final stretch is the most difficult and cautions nations against letting down their guard too soon. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says the 29 recorded cases include a small number in southeast Africa linked to a strain originating in Pakistan.

“While it does not affect the WHO African region’s wild polio free certification, it shows us that as long as polio continues to circulate anywhere, it is a threat to children everywhere. Despite this news, we have a unique window of opportunity right now to end polio for good.”

The WHO warns polio also can spread within communities through circulating vaccine-derived polioviruses. These variants, it notes, can emerge in places where not enough people have been immunized against this crippling disease. It reports these variants continue to spread across parts of Africa, Asia, and Europe and new outbreaks have been detected in Britain, Israel and the United States in recent months.

UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell says the new polio eradication strategy is designed to take the world to the finish line. She says the strategy includes tactics to protect children from variant outbreaks and stop their spread to other countries.

“We are also working with governments to speed up our response to these outbreaks, acting immediately to ensure that they do not harm more children,” Russel said. “And we continue working to integrate polio activities with other immunization and health programs so we can reach high-risk children who have never received vaccines before. The new strategy will help us end all forms of polio. It will also help prepare countries to respond to future health threats.”   

If this goal is reached, polio will become only the second disease after smallpox to have been wiped off the face of the Earth. U.N. health agencies say it will cost $4.8 billion to achieve this historic milestone.    

The economic returns, they say, will be significant. They estimate eradicating polio would result in savings of more than $33 billion.    

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