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UN Health Agency, Partners Seek Total Eradication of Polio

The United Nations health agency and its partners have pledged to eradicate the polio in the last four endemic countries//. They have taken measures to sustain the effort as long as needed till the last trace of the paralyzing and fatal disease is nipped out.

Mounting a hopefully final assault on polio, the United Nations health agency and its partners have pledged to raise within 12 months, and then sustain for as long as needed, vaccination levels in the last four endemic countries to those that stopped the sometimes paralysing and fatal disease altogether elsewhere in the world.

Governments, donors and international agencies at a meeting in Geneva yesterday hosted by the UN World Health Organization (WHO), agreed on the collective responsibility to mobilize the resources needed to complete polio eradication, in particular by filling a funding gap of $575 million for 2007-2008, with $60 million urgently needed by next month.

Indigenous wild poliovirus survives in only parts of Nigeria, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, where transmission has never been stopped. Ten other countries are currently fighting the tail-end of outbreaks caused by importations of poliovirus.

The meeting outlined specific milestones in two areas where improvements would raise coverage and immunity levels. The first is to ensure that vaccine reaches children by improving the quality of polio vaccination campaigns, strengthening health infrastructure, addressing security challenges, and by enhancing acceptance of vaccination through tailored social mobilization and community engagement strategies.

The second is the funding. International donors will need to rapidly fulfil commitments to securing the necessary resources. The first step is for donors to take the case for polio eradication back to their capital cities and present it to major international development fora between March and May. Without a rapid injection of funding, polio eradication activities will have to be curtailed, threatening the global polio eradication effort.

The commitment of the four remaining polio-endemic countries remains strong and was re-affirmed by the presence at the meeting of representatives from the offices of the Heads of Government. Together these countries vaccinate a total of 250 million children many times each year.

The meeting defined specific milestones to monitor whether the collective capacity of all polio eradication stakeholders is being fully harnessed to make concrete and rapid progress.

The meeting, convened by WHO Director-General Margaret Chan brought together top representation from other spearheading partners of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, including Rotary International, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), together with representatives from the endemic countries’ ministries of finance and health, major donors, political organizations and independent technical experts.

The eradication effort, predicated on reaching every child multiple times with oral polio vaccine, has reduced the number of polio cases worldwide by more than 99 per cent, vastly reducing the fear of a disease which used to infect hundreds of thousands of people, mainly children, every year.

WHO had originally hoped to eradicate polio worldwide by the end of 2004, but in 2003 three states in northern Nigeria suspended immunization over concerns by public figures about the safety of the vaccine made in the West, including rumours that it was contaminated by the HIV virus or could sterilize young girls.

By the time these states resumed immunization with a vaccine made in Indonesia, the disease had already begun to spread again to several other African and Middle Eastern countries that had been polio free.

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