The World Health Organisation has announced that India and 10 other countries in the South-East Asian region are now certified polio-free, meaning that 80% of the world has wiped out the disease.

The news comes after no new cases of polio were reported in India, or in any of the other countries, after three years. However, while the South-East Asian region includes the likes of Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Indonesia, polio is still endemic in parts of Afghanistan as well as Pakistan, where vaccination workers are allegedly killed by the Taliban.

Meanwhile, the crippling disease, which attacks the nervous system and can cause irreversible paralysis, has yet to be controlled in certain African countries. Polio runs rife in Nigeria, while Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya face frequent outbreaks and have remained causes for concern since 2013. This year, violence and armed conflict in Syria have led to vaccination campaigns being interrupted, and polio has re-emerged after more than 10 years; finally, Iraq also recently confirmed its first case in 14 years.

Nevertheless, WHO’s regional director, Dr. Poonam Khetrapal Singh has stated that the reaching of the 80% milestone is still “a momentous victory” and marks a significant step towards banishing polio once and for all. Until 2009, India’s population accounted for almost half of all polio cases globally and was thought to be one of the last to wipe out the disease.

British Rotarians immunize children in Lucknow. Credit to RIBI Image Library.

British Rotarians immunise children in Lucknow. Credit to RIBI Image Library.

But the country’s mass vaccination programme gained momentum quickly, and WHO’s declaration means the country has achieved what was previously deemed near impossible, sending a powerful message to remaining polio-endemic countries that sustained action must be taken.

Yet despite India’s success, Dr. Singh ended her a statement on a note of caution: “Until polio is globally eradicated, all countries are at risk and the [South-East Asian] region’s polio-free status remains fragile.”

Historically, The Global Polio Eradication Initiative was first launched in 1988, in a private-public partnership between governments and other organisations such as the WHO, Unicef, and Rotary International. In light of the recent outbreaks in 2013, the initiative recently developed The Polio Eradication and Endgame Strategic Plan 2013–2018, a long-term strategy that “addresses the eradication of all polio disease” by 2018.

Officials have said that the cost of a polio-free world would amount to over $5 billion, but the plans are vital “for the polio effort to be used for delivering other health services to the world’s most vulnerable children.”

For a WHO region to be certified polio-free, the following conditions must be met:

  • At least three years of zero confirmed cases due to indigenous wild poliovirus
  • Excellent lab-based surveillance for poliovirus
  • A demonstrated capacity to detect, report, and respond to imported cases of poliomyelitis
  • The assurance of safe containment of polioviruses in labs.

More information about the 2013-2018 plan can be found here.

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