Polio almost gone, but final push needed for full eradication, UN agencies report

Polio almost gone, but final push needed for full eradication, UN agencies report

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Efforts to eradicate polio have driven its incidence to the lowest point in history, with only 537 cases reported last year, but any delay in extinguishing the remnants of the disease could jeopardize the entire effort, two United Nations agencies warned today.

According to the UN World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), there are now only 10 countries left in the world where polio is endemic, and the incidence of the disease has been slashed by 99.8 per cent since 1988, when 1,000 children each day were paralyzed by the crippling virus.

Hailing this progress, WHO Director-General Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland warned that "we're not finished yet, and the past year has reminded us that we live in a world where security and access to children cannot be guaranteed." She urged the world to "finish the job… while we still have the opportunity."

An international group of polio experts recently echoed this view, cautioning that polio eradication could become a victim to recent global events. Experts cited the example of Afghanistan, where the surveillance system for the disease has suffered over the last few months.

UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy joined the call for a final push against the virus. "Throughout the battle to rid the world of polio, we have managed to reach children living is some of the most remote and challenging circumstances imaginable," she said. "Over the coming days and months, we must continue this unprecedented effort, using all of our resources to reach the very last child with polio vaccine."

In 2001 more than 575 million children under the age of five were vaccinated in 94 countries as part of the global effort to eradicate polio. Vaccinators, numbering over 10 million, went house-to-house, boat-to-boat, across borders, through rivers and over mountain ranges to find and immunize every child, often in internationally-coordinated immunization activities. This week mass immunization campaigns will be held in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, India, Somalia and the Sudan.

Polio is a highly infectious disease which invades the body's nervous system and can cause total paralysis in a matter of hours. Among the victims, between 5 and 10 per cent die when their breathing muscles are paralyzed. There is no cure for the disease.