Europe will retain its status as a polio-free region after Member States took satisfactory steps to combat an imported outbreak of the debilitating and sometimes fatal disease last year, in what the United Nations health agency hailed as “tremendous news.”
The 53-nation region, which for the purposes of the UN World Health Organization (WHO) includes ex-Soviet nations in Central Asia, with a combined population of some 900 million people, was officially certified as polio-free in 2002 after there had been no indigenous cases for more than three years.
But last year the infection was imported by a traveller or travellers from northern India into Tajikistan, from where it spread to some 475 patients, killing 30 of them, in Kazakhstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
At a meeting yesterday in Copenhagen, Denmark, the European Regional Certification Commission for Poliomyelitis Eradication (RCC), an independent panel of international public health experts, noted that transmission had been interrupted and no new cases had been reported since September 2010 because countries had taken effective action. Hence there was no need to re-certify all 53 Member States.
“The RCC decision is tremendous news for the region and a credit to all the Member States and partners that individually, collectively and promptly combated the first and largest outbreak of poliomyelitis the Region has seen since it was declared polio-free in 2002,” WHO Regional Director Zsuzsanna Jakab said.
“I am also very pleased that the hard work and personal commitments of the presidents, prime ministers and health ministers have produced this success, which shows the importance and value of political commitment and joint action.”
The RCC concluded that countries had provided sufficient evidence addressing immunization coverage and on the sensitivity of their polio surveillance systems, including establishing sustainable transport of specimens.
“The RCC’s assessment is extremely important,” WHO Assistant Director-General for Polio, Emergencies and Country Collaboration Bruce Aylward said. “At the same time, we are seeing critical progress in India, the source of last year’s importations into the European Region, and where we have not seen a case in more than six months.
“Taken together, these two developments constitute strong evidence that polio eradication can be achieved rapidly, with sufficient financing and political will.”
Since the launch in 1988 of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), spearheaded by WHO, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Rotary International and the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the incidence of polio has been reduced by more than 99 per cent.
At the time, more than 350 000 children were paralyzed every year in more than 125 endemic countries. So far in 2011, 325 cases have been reported worldwide. Only four countries remain endemic: Afghanistan, India, Nigeria and Pakistan.