Why polio just became a global health crisis!

Another interesting piece on Polio Eradication to share.

Though only 650 cases were recorded last year, the World Health Organization declared the disease an emergency, but its importance goes beyond public health.

Few people probably associate the phrase “global health emergency” with polio, a disease that has been around for 5000 years and is on a decades-long decline so steep that there are less than a thousand recorded cases left on Earth, and it no longer even seems real to many in the developed world. “Global health emergency” might sound applicable to HIV/AIDS, malaria, or cancer, but polio?

And yet, that is exactly what happened late last Friday afternoon in Geneva, when the World Health Assembly, the governing body of the World Health Organization, declared polio a public health emergency, calling for the 194 member states to fully fund the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, and fill the currently $945 million gap in its budget for 2012-13. But this is about much more than just filling a budget shortfall: polio’s threat is still very real, and the mission to finally stamp it out forever is a crucial one for reasons even bigger than the disease itself.

Since the world decided to come together to eradicate polio in 1988, the disease has been almost entirely eliminated. It killed or paralysed more than 350,000 children each year in the 1980s, but there were just 650 recorded cases in 2011. In January, India celebrated its first polio-free year in history, leaving the disease endemic in just three countries: Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The latest figures from the World Health Organization show only 60 cases so far in 2012.

But polio is a different type of emergency than the ones we usually hear about in the news. Its biggest danger isn’t the current number of cases, but the implications for failure: not only because a failure to eradicate could allow for a resurgence that could kill or disable thousands of children each year, but because of what it holds for the effectiveness of our global health systems itself.

Part of the risk has to do with money. Over the past quarter century, $9.5 billion has already been spent on polio eradication, driven by international organizations — primarily the WHO and UNICEF — as well as private donors such as the Gates Foundation and Rotary. The WHO’s strategic advisory group of experts on immunization have said that failure to eradicate polio would be “the most expensive public health failure in history.” A failure to make all that money achieve its intended goal could make it tougher to solicit donations from countries and individuals for future eradication campaigns.

The other element is symbolic. In a sense, polio will be a marker of either what the world can or cannot achieve in global health. “If we finish polio eradication, what it will prove is that with a relatively modest investment in the grand scheme of things, you can achieve real health outcomes,” says Bruce Aylward, the Canadian epidemiologist who heads the WHO’s eradication efforts.

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Losing Polio!

I came across this very interesting piece from US Foreign Policy site (by Laurie Garrett) titled: Losing Polio.
“As cries of concern from New Delhi grew louder, earlier this year the WHO gave Islamabad a stern warning: Stop polio or face global health travel restrictions, which would be economically crippling. After two years of mishaps in its bungled immunization efforts, Pakistan’s health leadership went overboard, stopping cars at tollbooths and dropping polio vaccine into every child passenger’s mouth. By April, local polio trackers sent numbers to Geneva that the WHO interpreted as hopeful signs that the disease was finally coming under control. But recently, Pakistan’s chief health commissioner Tariq Pirzada revealed that the numbers were faked by overzealous officials eager to please the WHO. In truth, rural immunization rates remain appalling.

The call for polio eradication goes back decades, and was initially backed by millions of members of the Rotary Club International, which raised much of the money used to eliminate the disease from the Americas, nearly all of Africa, and Southeast Asia. More recently, philanthropist Bill Gates jumped into the fray, donating billions of dollars to the effort. Combined with the WHO, UNICEF, and other organizations, these players eliminated 99 percent of the global burden of the disease, including cases of permanent paralysis caused by the crippling virus and deaths. But in mid-May, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon warned that the great achievements to date could collapse if polio efforts fail in Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan. 

“There is a looming danger that we could fall victim to our own success,” he warned. “Here’s why: The world is now populated by a generation that for the most part has never been exposed to polio. Additionally, many in this generation have been inadequately vaccinated. When the virus strikes under those conditions, the impact can be devastating. We saw that in the Republic of Congo and elsewhere in Africa in 2010, when an outbreak killed half of all who contracted the virus.”

Eradication is tenuous. Since the early 1960s it has been known that the polio virus can be carried by higher primate species, including monkeys, chimpanzees, and gorillas. In the laboratory it is also possible to infect rodent and chicken cells with the virus, though there is no evidence of those species carrying polio in nature. Nevertheless,  unlike smallpox — the only human pathogen ever eradicated — polio isn’t merely a Homo sapiens germ.

The virus, moreover, enters the human body in multiple ways, and after vaccination may continue to reside in the gastrointestinal (GI) tracts of infected individuals. Back in the 1950s, when scientists Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin competed to be the first to invent a vaccine, Salk created an injectable version that eliminated the virus from the individual’s bloodstream, built up antibodies, and completely protected children from the disease. But Sabin showed that those children could still harbor viruses (harmlessly to themselves) in their GI tracts, and shed infectious microbes in their faeces. Thus, Sabin said, oral vaccination was preferable, as it cleansed the intestines and built up local cellular immunity that protected not only the vaccinated individual, but the general public health by eliminating faecal passage of virus into water supplies, food, and untreated sewage systems.

Broadly speaking, this conflict between oral versus injected vaccination, public versus individual protection, and lifelong immunity versus temporary was at the heart of ongoing technical disputes regarding how best to target the disease, and whether eradication is even possible. While oral vaccination is easier than giving shots, its immunization impact is weaker and wanes with time — even fairly recently immunized Indian children are showing signs of lost protection. Overcoming this requires giving a child as many as seven doses of polio vaccine droplets over a period of months — a monumental logistics feat for poor countries, particularly in rural areas.

After years of struggle, India succeeded in vanquishing polio only when it switched its vaccine strategy to radically decrease the need for boosters. Instead of using an oral formulation that counters all three strains of polio viruses at the same time — but weakly — in 2009, India introduced a stronger vaccine that targets only the dominant two polio strains. The new vaccine gave children a 30 percent more powerful initial immune response, meaning that even without boosters, many Indian kids were protected. The impact was immediately felt, even in the poorest parts of the country. But this strategy may have rendered the children only temporarily protected, accounting for India’s fears of Pakistani vaccination failure. Yet the government should also be concerned about its own population’s anti-vaccine movement, which has reached middle-class India, where some parents decline immunization under false grounds that it would contribute to autism.

The world is very close to victory, but the remaining challenges are more cultural and political than scientific. Last year, a team of experts was deployed by the U.S. Agency for International Development to Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan to ask  local villagers what the polio eradication effort was doing wrong. In village after village, they got the same astonishingly obvious answer: Stop sending teams of men to vaccinate our children. Even a rudimentary understanding of conservative Muslim culture should have taught the would-be disease vanquishers that under Islam a woman may not allow an unrelated male into her home without her husband’s presence, nor should she allow the well-meaning gentleman to touch her female children. In all too many cases, vaccine failure boiled down to finally sending all-female health teams to Muslim-dominated villages.

Though the WHO says the final eradication effort is shy $1 billion, money is less likely to decide the fate of the great polio elimination campaign than governance, politics, and culture in three hotbed nations. Which is why the CIA’s use of a phony vaccine campaign is so infuriating to health officials. It undermined the faith that many Muslims in vulnerable countries place in Western-inspired immunization and medicine. And with millions of children in India and some other countries now experiencing waning immunity, time is decidedly against us. If wild polio hasn’t been eliminated from the final three countries by the end of 2012, the virus could well resurge in sites of alleged eradication, all over the world. And thousands will suffer.”

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