EU hails landmark Indian victory against polio

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European Development Commissioner Andris Piebalgs has hailed the milestone passed by India on 13 January when it marked three years since its last reported polio case, the threshold for certifying a country free of the disease. 

Polio is a virus that mostly affects children, which can lead to paralysis and, in some cases, death. Infection rates have fallen drastically since 1988 from 350,000 to just 223 reported cases in 2012. The disease is now only endemic in Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan.

“I very much welcome the news about India marking three years since the last case of polio was reported,” Piebalgs told EURACTIV in emailed comments. “The EU is firmly committed to the eradication of polio.”

Brussels has contributed around €170 million to polio eradication programmes in partner countries. In West Africa and Nigeria alone, the EU says that it has committed over €130 million as part of the Global Polio Eradication Drive.

At a Global Vaccine summit in Abu Dhabi last year, President Barroso promised a further €5 million to a global polio eradication drive, pledging that “in the future as in the past, the European Union will be a key ally in the global effort for immunisation”.

The EU is the world’s largest aid donor and claims to commit more than €8 billion for international assistance every year. Half a billion euros of that sum is spent on health initiatives.

“In order to eradicate polio we need functioning immunisation and sustainable health systems,” Piebalgs added. “That’s why the Commission already substantially supports the health sector in partner countries.”

In 2009, there were 741 reported polio cases in India, more than any country in the world. Between 1978 and 1995 50,000-100,000 paralytic polio cases occurred each year.

The use of bivalent, a new oral vaccine was instrumental in turning this around. Even more importantly, a nationwide vaccination campaign united the government with rotary clubs, and international agencies such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF in mobilising millions of health workers.

A ‘micro-plan’ approach involved their deployment with a meticulously precise focus on individual villages and communities for vaccination efforts.

The WHO says that it soon hopes to declare the entire South-East Asia region polio-free, with a commission of experts due to meet at the end of March to make a determination.  

Three regions – the Americas, Western Europe and Europe as a whole – have all been certified polio-free for at least 10 years.

The WHO’s Indian representative, Dr Nata Menabde, called the eradication of polio in India a “landmark”.

Polio is a highly infectious disease caused by a virus which invades the nervous system, and can cause total paralysis in a matter of hours. The virus enters the body through the mouth and multiplies in the intestine.

Initial symptoms are fever, fatigue, headache, vomiting, stiffness in the neck and pain in the limbs. One in 200 infections leads to irreversible paralysis (usually in the legs). Among those paralysed, 5% to 10% die when their breathing muscles become immobilised.

  • March 2014: WHO Committee of experts to decide whether the entire South-East Asia region can be classed as ‘polio-free’

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