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Polio Eradication: Twenty-year Battle Nears End

  • Rosanne Skirble

In 1987, Rotary International launched a campaign to end polio. The following year a resolution by the United Nations World Health Assembly backed the initiative. Leaders were confident that it was medically possible to stop the poliovirus that was striking 100,000 new victims each year.

"We are down to the lowest number of polio-infected districts in history. There is basically no question at this point that you can eradicate the disease everywhere if you can maintain the political will to get it done."

That's Bruce Aylward, director of the World Health Organization Polio Eradication Initiative. He says the strategy has included massive door-to-door campaigns, a surveillance network and creation of a network of national laboratories. He says the effort in some nations at times required warring factions to stage Days of Peace to allow volunteers to administer the oral vaccine.

"We've negotiated actual cessation of hostilities in 21 countries. I can't remember the exact number. It's been a partnership which has allowed us to do those things."

Aylward says the initiative has reaped financial and technical support from governments, private and public agencies.

Major players have been WHO, the United Nations Children's Fund, the U.S.-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the private Rotary International.

They have joined forces to immunize 2.5 billion children and cut virus transmission by 99 percent.

The last push to end polio has been complicated in recent years by the reemergence of the virus in some countries, particularly Nigeria and India. But with news that the situation on the ground is improving, Aylward hopes to remobilize donors from the wealthy G-8 countries to bridge a serious funding gap.

"Usually the G-8 funds approximately fifty percent of the program and they are only a quarter of the program's funding so far, in the current two-year period. That's a key part of what has to change if we are going to be able to get the vaccine to these kids."

Aylward says the polio initiative has spread far beyond its mission to eradicate polio. He says the 20-year, 8-billion dollar effort has improved health care systems that are now better equipped to address a wide array of disease threats and to save lives.

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