New strategy may be last shot to get rid of polio
For years, the world has been on the brink of wiping out polio, the deadly disease that can paralyze and kill children.
At the World Health Organization’s annual meeting of health ministers this week, experts are unveiling what they describe as a new strategy to get rid of the feared disease.
But others say there is little new and that if this effort fails, there are serious questions about whether to continue the campaign should be raised.
Some experts say eradicating polio is impossible and should be abandoned. With a new target of stopping the virus by the end of 2012, this may be WHO and partners’ best chance to get rid of polio before donors run out of money and patience.
Since WHO, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, UNICEF and Rotary International set out to eradicate polio in 1988, they have come tantalizingly close. By 2003, cases had dropped by more than 99 percent. But progress has stalled since and several deadlines have been missed.
Polio has virtually disappeared from the West but is entrenched in a handful of countries, namely Afghanistan, India, Nigeria and Pakistan. The disease mostly hits children under five and is spread via dirty water.
WHO’s new strategy targets problems in each country, provides more WHO monitoring, like more teleconferences, and holds governments more accountable. New outbreak response plans are also in place. Still, it is uncertain if more WHO oversight - which countries are free to ignore - will make a difference.
Others said WHO has always tailored programs to focus on local problems in different countries.
"I’m not sure how the new strategy differs from the ones adopted in 2007, 2004, and 1999," said Dr. Donald Henderson, who headed WHO’s smallpox eradication program. He said the strategy’s main elements have mostly all been seen before.
Polio cases fell sharply last year and experts are optimistic they may have turned a corner, though the disease’s high season hasn’t yet hit.
Dr. Paul Adovohepke, who heads UNICEF’s polio team in Nigeria, said rumours about the vaccine’s safety - which resulted in a year-long suspension of polio campaigns in 2003 - seem to have subsided. He has seen Nigerians ask vaccinators to go into their homes to give the polio vaccine to their kids. "(That) was not possible in 2003," he said.
But recent surprises, like an outbreak in Tajikistan, which had been free of the disease for years, show how unpredictable the effort remains. WHO says it is still possible to get rid of polio and that to give up now would set loose a deadly virus.