Even with countries like Nigeria making significant headway against the disease, experts think it’s time to step up in vaccination and other campaigns for a polio-free Earth by 2019.

Since July last year, the African country has not logged a new case of polio, when only three years ago its polio incidence accounted for over half of the cases worldwide. In late September, the World Health Organization (WHO) removed Nigeria from its list of polio-endemic nations.

“We’ve made tremendous progress in our effort to eradicate polio,” said Carol Pandak, PolioPlus program director of Rotary, an international organization that upholds a polio eradication mission. She added that it is “an exciting time” to be part of the 2019 goal of having no new polio cases anywhere.

WHO, UNICEF, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are some groups on-board the Global Polio Eradication Initiative(GPEI) with Rotary. Collective efforts have created a 99 percent decrease in polio incidence.

Dr. Elias Durry, WHO emergency adviser for polio eradication, noted there were only 16 polio cases in the last six months – a far cry from how it used to cripple 1,000 children a day. “[It] is truly a great achievement,” he said of not having polio in Africa for a full year.

In Nigeria, more than 200,000 health volunteers reached out to and immunized over 45 million children under age 5. Emergency operations centers were established nationally and locally, involving the government, civil society, and religious groups.

According to a WHO statement, continued vigilance is needed for making sure that polio does not return. Some efforts for stepping up against the illness are continued vaccination and surveillance activities to avoid virus re-emergence.

The anti-polio initiative was launched in 1988, when the wild polio virus was positioned in 125 countries. Today it exists in only two, with the Afghanistan-Pakistan cluster as the only epidemiological block, according to Dr. Jay Wenger of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

“That’s the only place in the world where the wild polio virus still lives,” he explained, citing the large number of people moving across the two countries’ borders as a challenge that continues to reintroduce the virus in the local communities.

Polio health workers have been subjected to attacks in Pakistan, something Durry said had not reduced their efforts for polio eradication given up to 98 of percent of Pakistani parents seek their children to be vaccinated. The workers are also being mobilized in the local level and quite known in the communities they move in.

The initiative also seeks to address complacency, where the disappearance of a virus in a particular region often leads to a lax attitude toward vaccination. In Ukraine, for instance, only 14 percent of kids were vaccinated even with an abundant vaccine supply.

According to Pandak, it is necessary to convince Ukrainian parents and to obtain “high-level government commitment” to ensure the highest-level, most prompt response.

And there’s a warning: the polio virus can be fortified when a weakened virus is used in the vaccine, something that has occurred in places such as Ukraine and Madagascar. This requires changing the vaccine to avoid re-infecting other places globally.

Pakistan and Afghanistan, the two remaining polio-endemic countries, are expected to be polio-free by end of 2016.

With no new polio cases in Nigeria for two more years – and Pakistan and Afghanistan for at least three years – polio will be history.

Photo: CDC Global | Flickr

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