LONDON (AlertNet) – A global initiative to rid the world of polio launched an emergency action plan on Thursday because gaps in funding and vaccination coverage threaten to derail a final push towards stamping out the paralysing disease.
The stepped-up effort aims to boost immunisation in Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan - the only three countries in the world where polio remains endemic - to levels needed to stop transmission.
"Polio eradication is at a tipping point between success and failure," said Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), in a statement. "We are in emergency mode to tip it towards success - working faster and better, focusing on the areas where children are most vulnerable."
The plan comes despite a fall in polio cases in the last year and the declaration of India as polio-free in February. New outbreaks in countries that had been free of the disease were nearly all stopped, and the number of polio cases was lower in the first four months of this year than during the same period in any other year.
But cases are still occurring in Nigeria, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Chad, according to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI). And outbreaks in recent years in China and West Africa - caused by spillover of the disease from Pakistan and Nigeria respectively - highlight the ongoing threat of resurgence, it said.
Full implementation of the emergency action plan is hindered by a funding gap of around $1 billion through 2013, it added.
"All our efforts are at risk until all children are fully immunised against polio – and that means fully funding the global eradication effort and reaching the children we have not yet reached," said Anthony Lake, executive director of the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF).
Poliomyelitis – known commonly as polio – is a highly infectious disease caused by a virus that invades the nervous system and is transmitted via the faecal-oral route. It can cause irreversible paralysis in hours, mainly affecting children under five. There is no cure, but vaccination prevents it.
The GPEI - spearheaded by national governments, the WHO, Rotary International, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and UNICEF, and supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, among others - said it had moved its operations into emergency mode since the start of the year.
The global emergency action plan has been developed in coordination with affected countries and builds on India's success.
It will include an intensified focus on problematic areas of Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan to increase vaccination coverage by the end of 2012, and stronger accountability, coordination and oversight to ensure success down to the local level.
It also aims for a surge in technical assistance and social mobilisation to tackle the disease.
“We know polio can be eradicated, and our success in India proves it,” said Kalyan Banerjee, president of Rotary International, a global humanitarian service organisation.
“It is now a question of political and societal will. Do we choose to deliver a polio-free world to future generations, or do we choose to allow 55 cases this year to turn into 200,000 children paralysed for life, every single year?”
In April, Banerjee met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai to offer assistance in applying lessons learned from India where Rotary's advocacy in Muslim communities helped ease cultural misconceptions about the vaccination programme, allowing more children to be immunised.
In 1988, when the GPEI was launched, more than 350,000 children were paralysed each year in more than 125 endemic countries. Since then the incidence of polio has been reduced by more than 99 percent.
Experts say a final push is needed to get rid of the disease completely.
Health ministers meeting at the World Health Assembly in Geneva this week are considering a resolution to declare "the completion of polio eradication to be a programmatic emergency for global public health", in recognition of the urgency of the situation.