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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