Health officials on Sunday declared a large swathe of Asia free from the polio virus, an important step in an international effort to eradicate the crippling childhood disease.
The virus, which can cause severe paralysis, has been eliminated in 37 Western Pacific countries — stretching south from mainland China to southeast Asia and New Zealand, the Regional Certification Commission for Poliomyelitis Eradication said.
The commission, meeting for a conference in the western Japanese city of Kyoto, is comprised of an independent panel of eight public health experts who made the determination based on data submitted by each country.
The announcement comes 12 years after the World Health Organization adopted resolutions to eliminate the polio virus worldwide by 2005. Polio would be the second disease in history to be eliminated, following smallpox in 1980.
WHO, with help from several governments and organizations such as Rotary International, organized immunization campaigns, trained volunteers and convinced warring factions in strife-torn countries to declare cease fires so that children could be inoculated.
Health workers, some of whom traveled by boat to reach children in remote areas of Mongolia and Papua New Guinea, inoculated hundreds of millions of children in fifty immunization campaigns from 1992 to 2000, WHO said.
The Western Pacific region is home to some 1.6 billion people, or about one-third of the world’s population. It is the second territory to be declared polio-free, following North and South America in 1994.
Health workers will concentrate their efforts on the remaining infected areas, which include India, sub-Saharan Africa and Turkey.
The U.S. and Japanese governments and international organizations such as Rotary International provided most of the US$73.7 million to eradicate the virus in the Western Pacific.
The funds were used to buy laboratory equipment, train health care workers and pay for the vaccines, which cost dlrs 0.09 each.
As a result, no new cases of indigenous polio have been reported for the past three years in the Western Pacific region, the criteria required for declaring an area free from the virus.
The last case of polio in the region occurred in March 1997, when a 15-month-old Cambodian girl was diagnosed with the disease.
The polio virus enters the body through the mouth and afflicts the nervous system, causing muscle paralysis, usually in the legs.
An estimated 60,000 new polio cases occurred every year in the Western Pacific region until 1990, WHO said.
In the United States, the disease afflicted about 50,000 children annually at its peak in the ‘50s.