WHO welcomes 'historic step' in fight against polio

The UN health agency says a second strain of polio virus eradicated, meaning only polio type 1 still circulating.

    Since the WHO launched a campaign against polio in 1988, cases have been cut by over 99 percent [Sabrina Toppa/Al Jazeera]
    Since the WHO launched a campaign against polio in 1988, cases have been cut by over 99 percent [Sabrina Toppa/Al Jazeera]

    The World Health Organization (WHO) has welcomed a "historic step" towards a polio-free world as an expert panel certified that the second of three types of the crippling virus has been eradicated globally.

    The announcement by the Global Commission for the Certification of Poliomyelitis Eradication on Thursday means that only wild poliovirus type 1 is still circulating after type 2 was declared eradicated in 2015 and type 3, which had last been seen in Nigeria in 2012, this week.

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    Since the WHO launched its campaign against polio in 1988, global polio cases have been cut by more than 99 percent but the type 1 poliovirus is still endemic in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where it has infected a total of 88 people this year.

    The 2019 data is a resurgence from a record low global annual figure of 22 cases in 2017. The number was 33 last year. 

    Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO, said his organisation remains fully committed to ensuring that all necessary resources are made available to eradicate the last poliovirus strain.

    "The achievement of polio eradication will be a milestone for global health. We urge all our other stakeholders and partners to also stay the course until final success is achieved," he said. 

    'We cannot relax'

    Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa, said: "We cannot relax. Countries must strengthen routine immunisation to protect communities, ramp up routine surveillance so that we are able to detect even the slightest risk of polio re-emerging."

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    Polio, which cannot be cured, invades the nervous system and can cause irreversible paralysis within hours. Infection can be prevented by vaccination - and a dramatic reduction in cases worldwide in recent decades has been due to intense national and regional immunization campaigns for babies and children.

    In unvaccinated populations, however, polioviruses can re-emerge and spread swiftly. Cases of vaccine-derived polio can also occur in places where immunity is low and sanitation is poor, as vaccinated people can excrete the virus, putting the unvaccinated at risk.

    The Philippines last month said it was planning an emergency vaccination campaign after polio re-surfaced and caused the first two recorded polio cases there in 20 years.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies