A(nother) polio emergency, perhaps the final one

Child receives polio vaccine

The world is close to eradicating polio but this infectious disease has a tendency — like the whack-a-mole game — to pop up just when you think you’ve got it put down.

The polio eradication campaign has been quite successful, getting rid of endemic polio in all but three countries: Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan. But due to major increases in polio lately in these three countries, and some spill-over exportation of the disease into neighboring countries, the World Health Organization today officially declared a polio emergency.

It’s certainly not an emergency in terms of the overall number of cases, or the first time this disease has re-emerged after it was thought suppressed. But this time — so close to eradication — it’s ‘explosive’ re-emergence has prompted a greater sense of urgency. Failure to eradicate polio now could lead again to hundreds of thousands of polio deaths globally.

“Polio eradication is at a tipping point between success and failure,” said Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization.  “We are in emergency mode to tip it towards success – working faster and better, focusing on the areas where children are most vulnerable.”

As the BBC reports, the international community is being asked to provide nearly a $1 billion in funds to launch an emergency action plan:

Bruce Aylward, head of the WHO’s polio eradication campaign, said: “Over the last 24 months on three continents – in Europe, in Africa and in Asia – we have seen horrific explosive outbreaks of the disease that affected adults, and in some cases 50% of them died…  Aylward also cautioned that there was a $950m shortfall in funding and admitted they had been forced into “cutting corners” with vaccination campaigns being stopped in some countries.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has been along with Rotary International a strong supporter, and major funder, of the polio campaign. The Seattle philanthropy urged the international community to see this campaign through to completion.

“We are all responsible for creating a polio-free world while we still can,” said Chris Elias, president of Global Development at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “Achieving this goal is a critical step in protecting all children from vaccine-preventable diseases.”

Other news reports on the emergency action plan:

NPR Call for Emergency Action on Polio

Reuters Global emergency declared on polio

The Week Why is the WHO declaring an emergency on polio?

Nature WHO sets sights on last patches of polio

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Editor Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom-at-humanosphere.org, follow him on Twitter @tompaulson and/or send a comment below.