A polio-free world is still possible

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The world’s chances of achieving this once unthinkable goal of ending polio are being jeopardised by a funding gap of $945 million (€757 million), says Sir Liam Donaldson.

Sir Liam Donaldson is chair of the Independent Monitoring Board of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.

"Ten years after Europe was declared polio-free, the world stands tantalisingly close to eradicating the disease for good. With global cases at their lowest levels since records began – only 650 new cases in 2011 there is an opportunity to stamp out this debilitating and destructive virus.

Yet, the world’s chances of achieving this once unthinkable goal are being jeopardised by a funding gap of $945 million (€757 million) – almost half the amount originally planned for 2012-2013.

This shortfall means vaccination campaigns for 2012 will face cancellations in 33 countries, leaving 94 million children under-immunised. This is not just unacceptable: it is also highly damaging and will make our efforts to eradicate polio more expensive and challenging in years to come.

Many of us in Europe have forgotten the devastating and untreatable impact polio can have on the lives of those it affects – mostly children under five.  We may also not be aware of how effective and simple prevention can be. Just two drops of the vaccine administered on the tongue is enough to ensure a child is immunised against the threat of polio and paralysis for their entire lifetime.

With donor support, including 20 EU countries, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative has been able to achieve some truly remarkable results. Despite being long regarded as the most difficult place in the world to stamp out polio, India, for example, was declared polio-free in 2012. India’s achievement is nothing short of momentous and should greatly enhance confidence that the virus can be eradicated worldwide.

But India’s experience is far from uniform. In the six countries where polio persists, there are still 2.7 million children who have never received even a single dose of the polio vaccine.  Furthermore, the virus is now taking refuge in a number of “sanctuaries”, specific areas of the six affected countries where the virus can multiply and prepare for a fresh attack on the vulnerable. These sanctuaries exist because too many children in them are being missed by vaccination campaigns. 

Of the six affected countries in the world today there are some successes to celebrate. In spite of acute challenges, Pakistan has witnessed half as many cases in the first half of this year as in the same period in 2011. High level political support is making a difference.

Chad in Central Africa has also seen a marked reduction in cases, and Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo have had no cases at all. Nigeria is still a risk to the wider region due to the persistence of several sanctuaries for the virus. Afghanistan is on the critical list, in need of urgent solutions to the systemic problems within its programme which are compounded by insecurity.

To challenge donor awareness, the World Health Organisation recently declared polio a global health emergency. Doing so not only acts as a reminder of  the tipping point we find ourselves at, but serves as a rallying cry for countries to act on polio eradication.

For millions of children in the most hard-to-reach areas of the world, the polio programmes represent the only health service to which they have access. When it reaches these children it does not just supply polio drops. The polio programme has helped avert 1.25 million deaths through vitamin A supplementation and 2.3 million deaths through measles vaccination. It has trained a generation of health workers.This is a legacy that must continue.

We now have a unique opportunity to end polio – and build a more effective global health system. But Europe and the world must take the long view on what is at stake. Short-term funding constraints and a lack of foresight cannot trump doing what’s right when it comes to protecting the health and futures of the world’s children."

Independent Monitoring Board: Every Missed Child

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