WHO chief urges new drive against polio

By Richard Waddington GENEVA, Reuters

The head of the World Health Organisation (WHO) called on Wednesday for a new drive to stamp out polio, saying it was probably now or never for ridding the world of the paralysing disease that attacks mainly children. “If we don’t meet this virus with an immediate surge of commitment, the virus may win,” said WHO Director-General Margaret Chan. “We are facing our best and perhaps our last opportunity to eradicate polio,” she told a one-day meeting of experts, called by the WHO to review strategy after the United Nations agency missed its 2005 goal for polio’s elimination. After 18 years and $5 billion spent, the anti-polio campaign has slashed the infection rate from some 350,000 cases a year to around 2,000, while the number of countries in which it is endemic has slumped to just four from 125. “We have the virus cornered as never before,” said Chan. But finishing off the disease, which can cause permanent paralysis in children or even kill, has proved unexpectedly tough, with the infection rate ticking again after touching a record low of 483 cases in 2001. The only other human disease to have been eradicated is smallpox, which disappeared in 1977. Polio retains a hold in parts of India, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria, with the latter being the source of re-infection in Africa and beyond. Some 26 countries where polio was previously eradicated have reported fresh cases since 2003. Pakistan has recently seen some Muslim clerics oppose the polio drive, alleging as some had in northern Nigeria in 2003 that the vaccine caused sterilisation.

The Wednesday meeting in Geneva — which included Nigerian, Pakistani, Indian and Afghan leaders, international donors and health experts — set no new target date for eradication. The keys to success were better organisation, involvement of local communities and continued funding, officials said. Some $575 million is still needed from donors for 2007-2008. The stubbornness of the disease has led some to question whether it would be better to aim for containment rather than eradication. But the view at the meeting was that containment would cost more and be far less effective, officials said. The WHO has estimated that a two-year campaign to complete the job of eradicating polio would need some $1.2 billion, which is only twice what has been spent on containing the outbreaks in the 26 newly infected countries. “Over a 20-year period, every proposed option for controlling polio will cost more in human suffering and dollars than finishing eradication,” Chan told delegates. “In other words, getting the job done is your best buy.”