Asia’s polio-endemic countries on track to eliminate disease this year – UN

Asia’s polio-endemic countries on track to eliminate disease this year – UN

As the United Nations health agency seeks to make polio the first disease in the 21st century to be totally eliminated through mass immunizations – and only the second ever after smallpox – the three remaining polio-endemic Asian countries are on target to end all outbreaks by this year.

In 2004, polio cases in Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan were slashed by 45 per cent, their health ministers and senior officials announced today at a meeting at World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters in Geneva.

Similar momentum in 2005, with repeated immunization campaigns, should put an end to transmission in this particularly crowded corner of the world, which has proven a challenge to the global eradication of a potentially deadly disease that once paralyzed hundreds of thousands of children worldwide each year.

Today’s meeting was the one-year follow-up to the Geneva Declaration on the Eradication of Poliomyelitis, a 2004 pledge by the six remaining polio-endemic countries to intensify their activities, with some officials hoping to eradicate the disease within 12 months.

But the campaign suffered a setback in Africa, home to three of the six countries – Egypt, Niger and Nigeria – when various Nigerian states suspended immunization in 2003 over concerns by public figures about the safety of the oral vaccine, including rumours that it was contaminated by the HIV virus or that it could sterilize young girls.

The suspension was later lifted but not before the disease spread to re-infect 10 other previously polio-free African countries.

In Geneva today, the Asian officials hammered out a plan for 2005 that involves massive and repeated polio immunization campaigns in the few remaining affected districts of these countries. The emphasis will be on reaching children in communities traditionally under-served by health services.

Similar action last year paid off in shrinking the geographic footprint of the poliovirus and in cutting numbers of affected children. Total cases in the region have dropped to 186 last year from 336 in 2003, while surveillance in the key districts is twice as sensitive. Vast areas of each country reported no polio last year.

During the 2004 immunization campaigns in the three countries 210 million children were given 1.5 billion doses of vaccine.