UN health agency calls for urgent funds to finish global polio eradication drive

UN health agency calls for urgent funds to finish global polio eradication drive

Child receiving polio vaccine
The global drive to eradicate polio has met with great success, but could be imperilled in the absence of adequate resources to finish the job, according to a report presented today to the United Nations World Health Assembly in Geneva.

A $400 million funding gap now poses the greatest threat to the effort to rid the world of polio, the Polio Technical Consultative Group said in the report submitted to the Assembly -- a gathering of representatives from all 191 member States of the UN World Health Organization (WHO).

"The success of the polio eradication programme thus far proves that WHO-recommended strategies are extremely effective, and when fully implemented, can result in polio's rapid eradication," said the Group's Chairman, Dr. Walt Orenstein. "However, without the funds, the remaining infected countries simply cannot finish the job."

The report documents substantial progress in the fight against polio, with the number of cases more than halved from 7,141 in 1999 to just 2,857 in 2000. Overall, there has been a 99 per cent reduction in the number of children paralyzed by polio since the global campaign was launched in 1988. This success is largely credited to the implementation of national immunization days, which last year reached 550 million children.

The need to complete the eradication effort is underscored by the emergence of new cases of polio derived from vaccines. This phenomenon is blamed on a failure to maintain high immunization coverage in areas with poor sanitation. Those conditions combine to allow vaccine-derived polioviruses to circulate and cause disease among children. In response to this problem, the Group is exploring when and how the use of oral polio vaccines can be stopped.

"The overriding lesson is the need for urgency -- urgency to finish the job and to stop using this vaccine as soon as it is safe to do so," said WHO Director-General Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland.

"The immediate challenge is filling the $400 million funding gap," she stressed. "Everyone at the global, regional and national levels must help raise these funds."

In a related development, WHO today reported the first case of polio in over two years in Bulgaria. The Bulgarian Ministry of Health responded with a vaccination campaign in the community at risk. The agency praised Bulgaria's early detection and rapid response, while stressing the need for full global eradication of the disease.