Calling it an historic milestone, the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) today announced that Europe was now officially certified as free of the debilitating poliomyelitis virus.
The UN agency, which made the announcement in Copenhagen at the meeting of the European Regional Commission for the Certification of Poliomyelitis Eradication (RCC), said it was an important public health event for the 870 million people in the 51 countries that make up the region. WHO's regional director for Europe, Dr. Marc Danzon, described it as "a tremendous achievement in the global effort to eradicate polio."
The certification follows an unprecedented series of coordinated national immunization campaigns in which 60 million children under five years of age received two extra doses of vaccine each year from 1995 to 1998, according to WHO.
There have been no reported cases of indigenous polio for three years in the countries that make up the region, although occasional cases of polio have occurred as a result of infected people travelling to Europe.
Prior to the certification, a detailed examination by an independent panel of international public health experts was made. National health data was scrutinized and national health authorities made firm commitments to maintain immunization programmes and surveillance, as well as demonstrating their capacity to deal with occasional imported cases.
Polio is a highly infectious disease that mainly strikes children under five years old. The polio virus, which usually enters the body through the mouth, invades the central nervous system and can cause total paralysis in a matter of hours. One in every 200 infections leads to irreversible paralysis, and - of those paralysed - some 5 to 10 per cent die when their breathing muscles are immobilized. There is no cure, although the disease is preventable through the use of a vaccine.