The fight against Polio (poliomyelitis) received a boost last week with the launch of an ‘emergency action plan’ by the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI). The news follows recent fears about the resurgence of the disease in countries such as the Congo and China where the disease was thought to have been eradicated.
Polio is a disease caused by a virus which operates within its victims’ nervous system. It affects children mainly under the age of five and often leads to paralysis and in some cases death.
The plan devised by the GPEI involves increasing the WHO’s current vaccination programmes in Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan, the only three countries where polio remains endemic, to levels needed to prevent the transmission of the disease. If the programme is successful in eradicating the disease, polio will become only the second disease ever to have been eradicated after small pox.
The GPEI was formed in 1988 and was spearheaded by the WHO, Rotary International, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and UNICEF. It is also supported by polio-affected and donor governments, private foundations, development banks, humanitarian and non-governmental organizations, corporate partners and more than 20 million volunteers.
Vaccinations have to date been the most effective means of preventing the spread of the disease. The most common vaccines are oral polio vaccine (OPV) and inactivated polio vaccine (IPV). The programme has faced various challenges in the countries in which the disease is still endemic such as insecurity, weak health systems and poor sanitation.
These can be compounded by religious and political boundaries, for instance, certain extremist Islamic leaders in Pakistan and Nigeria have denounced the vaccination programme as a western conspiracy thereby preventing health officials from administering vaccinations to populations who remain prone to contracting the disease.
The UN has joined the WHO in publicly highlighting the threats posed by the disease if left unchecked. “Wild viruses and wildfires have two things in common. If neglected, they can spread out of control. If handled properly, they can be stamped out for good,” the organisation’s Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said last week. According to Ban Ki-moon the Global Polio Eradication Initiative has only half of the $2 billion it needs to procure vaccines and deploy staff to cover the areas in the countries in which the disease is prevalent. The UN anticipates that about $40-50 billion will be saved in the cost of treatment by 2035, not to mention the countless lives of children at risk across the globe, if its last stand against polio is successful.