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04/03/2013

Will a $5.5B plan end polio?

This morning, senior officials from the Global Polio Eradication Initiative briefed reporters on their strategy to wipe out polio once and for all by 2018.

The world has been working towards this goal since 1988 -- and today, it finally looks within reach. Despite some significant setbacks (including the bloody attacks on immunization workers in Nigeria and Pakistan), 2012 proved to be a very good year for the polio eradication effort.

The virus is now endemic in just three countries: Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan. In 2011, these countries saw 650 cases; in 2012, there were 223.

And India, once considered the most challenging country for overcoming polio, has not recorded a new case in more than two years.

"(Last year) had the fewest number of polio cases ever reported in recorded history, in the fewest places, fewest countries, fewest number of districts," Hamid Jafari, the World Health Organization's director of polio operations and research, told reporters.

"So it has really brought us to a very important and unique opportunity to actually complete polio eradication."

The initiative's strategy for polio eradication is outlined in a $5.5-billion plan called the "Polio Eradication and Endgame Strategic Plan." It has four main objectives:

1) To stop all natural transmission of the virus by the end of next year.

2) To strengthen routine immunization programs in high-risk countries and phase out oral polio vaccines.

3) To ensure that samples of polio virus are safely stored -- a requirement that must be met before a country can be certified as polio-free.

4) To ensure that the lessons learned (and infrastructure developed) can be applied towards future health campaigns and interventions.

There will be two major obstacles in seeing this plan through -- the first being that $5.5 billion.

"It’s absolutely essential to be able to fund these activities and continue through th entire period of six years in order to achieve the goal,"  said John Sever, vice-chair of Rotary International's committee to end polio. "We’re aiming to get that money committed up front so that the entire series of events can take place."

The other obstacle, of course, are the security risks. If immunization workers are unable to carry out their tasks safely, then the campaign is doomed to fail. Jafari said a "multi-pronged strategy" is being applied to combat this problem -- one that recognizes that every security threat is "highly contextual at the local level."

"Each of these areas, provinces and districts ... have found security coordination committees that are working very closely with the polio operational planning," Jafari said.

The campaign will also ramp up efforts to engage community members, particularly local and religious leaders, thus involving them in the eradication effort, he added.

"The vaccinators should be from the local communities and they are vaccinating their own children and their own communities," Jafari said.

Jennifer Yang is the Star’s global health reporter. She previously worked as a general assignment reporter and won a NNA in 2011 for her explanatory piece on the Chilean mining disaster. Follow her on Twitter: @jyangstar

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