KYOTO — The World Health Organization on Sunday declared the western Pacific region free of the virus that causes polio, an important step in international efforts to eradicate the crippling childhood disease from the world.
Containing 37 countries and territories, the area became the second of six WHO-designated global zones to be declared free of poliovirus, the Regional Certification Commission for Poliomyelitis Eradication said. North and South America were given the WHO certification in 1994.
The commission, meeting for a conference in Kyoto, is composed of an independent panel of eight public health experts who made the determination based on data submitted by each country.
In announcing that indigenous strains of the virus have been eliminated in the western Pacific, health officials warned that immunization is still necessary because the disease can still be imported from regions where the virus survives.
The polio virus enters the body through the mouth and afflicts the nervous system, causing muscle paralysis, usually in the legs.
The Sunday declaration was read out by Shigeru Omi, regional director of the WHO in the western Pacific, at the Kyoto meeting on poliomyelitis eradication in the western Pacific.
“Today, we celebrate the hard work of everyone involved in the effort to stop the suffering caused by polio in the western Pacific,” Omi said.
“Tomorrow, our work doesn’t stop. We must maintain our polio-free status through vigilant monitoring and surveillance,” he said.
The area is home to 1.6 billion people, a third of the world’s population, and stretches from China in the north and west to New Zealand in the south and French Polynesia in the east. The region does not include North Korea and Indonesia, the latter being in the Southeast Asia.
The announcement comes 12 years after the WHO adopted resolutions to eliminate the polio virus worldwide by 2005. Polio would be the second disease in history to be eliminated, following smallpox in 1980.
WHO, with help from several governments and organizations such as Rotary International, organized immunization campaigns, trained volunteers and convinced warring factions in strife-torn countries to declare cease fires so that children could be inoculated.
Health workers, some of whom traveled long ways to reach children in remote areas of Mongolia and Papua New Guinea, inoculated hundreds of millions of children in 50 immunization campaigns from 1992 to 2000, WHO said.
Now, health workers will concentrate their efforts on the remaining infected areas, which include India, sub-Saharan Africa and Turkey.
The U.S. and Japanese governments and international organizations such as Rotary International provided most of the $73.7 million to eradicate the virus in the Western Pacific.
The funds were used to buy laboratory equipment, train health care workers and pay for the vaccines, which cost $0.09 each. As a result, no new cases of indigenous polio have been reported for the past three years in the western Pacific region, the criteria required for declaring an area free from the virus.
The region’s last reported case, documented in March 1997, concerned a 15-month-old Cambodian girl. Last October, a 16-month-old Chinese boy was infected with a strain of the polio virus that was believed to have been imported from India.
An estimated 60,000 new polio cases occurred every year in the western Pacific region until 1990, WHO said. In the U.S., the disease afflicted about 50,000 children annually at its peak in the 1950s.
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