Washington — A campaign to rid the world of polio has been under way since 1988, successfully reducing the number of cases of the disease by 99 percent. An estimated 5 million young people are able-bodied, spared a life lived in the partial paralysis caused by polio, according to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.
But finishing the job is difficult. So difficult that the almost 200 member nations of the World Health Assembly declared in late May that emergency operations are necessary to take the campaign to a successful end.
"We need everyone's commitment and hard work to eradicate polio and cross the finish line," said Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "It won't be easy, but together we can eradicate polio forever and for everyone."
The CDC is a sponsoring partner of the eradication effort along with the World Health Organization, Rotary International, UNICEF and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The global emergency designation supports a December 2011 decision at CDC to activate its Emergency Operations Center. Since then, CDC polio efforts have been in high gear to monitor and coordinate polio initiatives around the world. The Operations Center brings together scientists from across CDC to analyze, validate and efficiently exchange information during a public health emergency and connect with emergency response partners. The Operations Center provides stronger coordination and communication among the agency's various programs, including teams working abroad with international counterparts in countries where children are still at risk of polio infection.
Worldwide, the number of polio cases has declined sharply in 2012 compared to 2011, with just about a third of the cases that had appeared last year at this time. But the disease is still occurring in those countries where it has never been entirely subdued: Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Cases have also arisen in Chad in 2012, but it is a country that once had been able to claim itself rid of the disease. The 2012 cases are suspected of being imported from neighboring Nigeria, but the case numbers are sharply down from 2011 in Chad -- 60 at this point last year, and just three in 2012.
Nigeria's Federal Minister of Health, C.O. Onyebuchi Chukwu, spoke at the World Health Assembly and cited his country's determination to quell the circulation of the poliovirus in Nigeria, where three new cases were reported in the final week of May. The total number of cases in 2012 is at 38, actually greater than the number that occurred by this point in 2011, which ended with a 12-month count of 68 cases of the disease. Nigeria has organized a Presidential Task Force focused on the eradication effort and increased funding for thorough and broad immunization activities.
"Nigeria remains committed to this goal," Chukwu said.
Another important landmark of 2012 is that India has not reported a polio case since January 2011. Passing that one-year mark as polio-free was an important milestone for India, where eradication has been a serious challenge given the country's population of more than 1.2 billion and its large area.
"We know polio can be eradicated, and our success in India proves it," said Kalyan Banerjee, president of Rotary International, the humanitarian service organization that has been involved in this global campaign from the beginning.
Another veteran of this more-than-20-year challenge explains why the eradication must take on the imperative of an emergency. Walter Dowdle, a consultant to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative and a former leader of the CDC, says achieving eradication is crucial for all children at risk of contracting the disease, for all diseases that have the potential for eradication, and for all international health initiatives that could share ownership in the campaign to end a disease.
While the Initiative is not lacking for commitment, it is lacking funds. The staff foresees a funding shortfall of $1 billion, extending through 2013, a shortfall that will impede full implementation of the emergency action plan.