The polio eradication effort has suffered some discouraging setbacks over the past year: an outbreak in the Horn of Africa, new wild poliovirus cases in war-torn Syria, continued attacks on health workers in Pakistan and Nigeria. This week, Pakistan also announced that 2013's polio cases have now surpassed the number of cases from this same time last year.
Which is why today's news is particularly uplifting: the Southern Region of Afghanistan -- one of the last three countries where polio remains endemic -- has, for the first time ever, reported an entire year without any new cases.
“Passing one year without any reported cases of wild poliovirus in the Southern Region is an encouraging milestone and a great credit to the frontline health workers,” said Dr. Suraya Dalil, Afghanistan's minister of public health, in a joint press release with the WHO and UNICEF.
“I urge those workers to now redouble their efforts over the next few months of the low transmission season when transmission of the virus is traditionally slower. This offers a very real opportunity to stop transmission of the virus entirely across the country."
The press release noted, however, that immunization rates are still low in other parts of the country; the Eastern Region is also still fighting an outbreak, which could easily spill over into the south.
Nevertheless, Afghanistan has only seen nine polio cases so far this year; an encouragingly small number, given that there were 37 cases in 2012. Here is the latest breakdown of polio cases around the world, courtesy of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative: