WHO’s big announcement that had nothing to do with bacon

Dr. Mariam Florence Ogo administers oral polio vaccine to a child in Pakka, Adamawa, Nigeria. (Mariam Florence Ogo/CDC/flickr)

The World Health Organization made two announcements on Monday. A study showing too much bacon can cause cancer got a lot of attention. The removal of Nigeria from the list of polio-endemic countries did not. It should have.

July 24, 2014, is the date of the last case of wild poliovirus in Nigeria, according to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. Officially making it past the one year mark led to the declaration for the country. More important, the transmission of wild poliovirus is out of Africa and a polio-free world just drew a bit closer.

This is a clear example of success under very difficult circumstances. It shows we can eradicate polio if proven strategies are fully implemented,” said Tom Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in a statement. “Combined with the news of the eradication of type 2 wild poliovirus last week, we are moving decisively toward ending a disease that has paralyzed tens of millions of children.”

As Frieden mentioned, the news about Nigeria came on the heels of the declaration that the world eradicated wild poliovirus type 2. More than 15 year have passed since the last case was detected in India. It means oral polio vaccines will no longer need to provide protection against the strain. Polio eradication advocates see the gains as proof positive that the end of polio is upon us.

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Polio exists today only in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In 1988 the virus was in 125 countries. If all goes well, both countries will see their last cases ever next year. With only 16 cases of polio in the past six months, 2017 may be the year when all countries are off the polio-endemic list. But that does not mean everything is in the clear, warned Chris Elias of the Gates Foundation.

“While the progress in Nigeria should be celebrated, it is also fragile. It is critical that Nigeria goes two more years without a case of polio which will require the support of partners, increased accountability at all levels of the program led by President Buhari, and increased domestic funding commitments,” said Elias in a statement.

Vigilance is important everywhere. Pakistan and Afghanistan have struggled to eliminate polio because of the hard-to-reach communities in both countries. Violence against vaccinators makes it a more dangerous job. And then there are concerns about low vaccine rates.

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Just because there are no new cases does not mean polio is entirely gone. Ukraine, for example, saw its vaccination rate for children fall to 14 percent last year. Declines in parts of the U.S. and U.K. have been reported as well. And cases were reported in Syria and Iraq in the past few years – the result of instability in both countries.

“The removal of Nigeria from the list of polio-endemic countries … is proof positive that if we work together in partnership to reach every community and immunize every child, we can finish the job of eradicating this evil disease everywhere, once and for all,” said Tony Lake, head of the UNICEF.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.