There’s a Global Polio Emergency: Now What?

The World Health Assembly (the governing body of the World Health Organization) is declaring that Polio is a “programmatic emergency.”

This is more than an hortatory designation. Rather, it is intended to set into motion a series of actions and free up the necessary funds to drive the final stake through the heart of this global scourge.

First, the good news. Polio is very nearly gone. It is endemic in only three countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria. Last year, India was declared one year polio free by the World Health Organization–a huge milestone. Humanity is really close to total eradication of polio.

So why the emergency? Over the last year polio cases in the those three endemic countries have surged — In Afghanistan by 220%, in Nigeria by 185%, and in Pakistan by 37%. The most dramatic rise has been in the second half of 2011. “If immunity is not raised in the three remaining countries to levels necessary to stop poliovirus transmission, polio eradication will fail,” warns the newly released Global Polio Emergency Action Plan. “All three countries still face a variety of barriers to reaching each child with the oral polio vaccine (OPV) including weak public infrastructure and health systems, insecurity, largescale population movements, corruption, political change, and insufficient accountability.”

Another problem is a huge, nearly $1 billion funding shortfall. Polio eradication efforts have already had to be scaled back in 24 countries due to a budget crunch, and without a larger injection of funds, these efforts can falter.

So, faced with surging Polio in the three endemic countries, and a shortage of financial resources to deal effectively with it, the World Health Assembly declared polio a global emergency, and released an accompanying detailed strategy that lays out the specific steps needed to meet the emergency head on.

Eradication is possible. If you look at a map of the three endemic countries, you see that polio is fairly localized to specific regions within those countries.  It is really just a matter of mustering the financial resources and political will to overcome this final hurdle. That’s why the international community is declaring this emergency.

This graphic from Rotary, a founding member of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, says it all: