Over the centuries, polio has crippled and killed millions of victims, most of them children. Today there is hope that no more children will be stricken with this debilitating disease.
Oct. 29 marked a landmark event in the history of public health in the Western Pacific region. The region, where one-quarter of the world’s population lives, has achieved polio-free status, meaning the circulation of the polio virus has been stopped.
The Western Pacific becomes only the second region in the world to become polio-free, after the Americas in 1994.
The success did not occur overnight. Over the past decade, 37 countries and areas of the World Health Organization’s Western Pacific region, thousands of public-health-care workers, dozens of nongovernmental organizations and countless volunteers united to work toward the common goal of eradicating polio in every corner of the vast region: from the Pacific islands in the east to China in the west, and from Mongolia in the north to New Zealand in the south.
Polio-free status has been achieved using two main weapons: tiny drops of oral polio vaccine and an early warning system to detect and respond to cases of acute flaccid paralysis in children under 15 years of age. AFP is a condition associated with several diseases, including polio.
During the height of immunization efforts, from 1994 to 1998, 100 million children received protection against polio every year. Public health workers reached children wherever they lived. Meanwhile, a regionwide network comprised of 44 laboratories, public-health officials, and frontline health workers was established to detect, report and respond to AFP cases. Since the discovery of the last polio case in the Western Pacific in 1997, more than 21,000 AFP cases have been investigated. No trace of indigenous polio virus has been found.
The results of these combined efforts speak for themselves. No new indigenous polio cases have occurred anywhere in the region for more than three years, the benchmark for the region’s certification. In 1990, there were 6,000 reported polio cases in the Western Pacific region. However, reporting of cases was not fully developed and public-health officials estimate that as many as 60,000 new polio cases occurred every year until 1990.
The cooperation of partners at community, national and international levels has played an essential role in ensuring polio-eradication efforts in the Western Pacific were a success. The countries and areas of the region provided the majority of resources needed to undertake the polio-eradication initiative. An international partnership also emerged to support polio eradication efforts. UNICEF, the governments of Australia, Japan, the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Rotary International and Rotary districts 2640 and 2650 in Japan provided more than $73.7 million to the regionwide effort. Funds helped purchase vaccines, provide technical assistance, upgrade laboratory facilities and organize logistics for immunization campaigns and surveillance systems.
Rotary International, a worldwide network of public-service clubs, brought communities together to support the polio-eradication effort. Rotary helped to mobilize its members to raise funds, to provide time as volunteers and to raise awareness of the eradication initiative.
Reaching the goal of polio-free status in the Western Pacific region doesn’t mean our job is over. On the contrary, we must now work even harder to see the day when the world is certified as free of polio.
In some areas of the world, the polio virus still widely circulates. The polio virus does not respect national boundaries and the risk of its importation into a polio-free region is a very real one. Therefore we must be vigilant in tracking suspected polio cases throughout the region. For years to come, countries and areas of the Western Pacific must provide ongoing support for immunization campaigns that protect children against polio. Our region must share its experience and expertise to ensure the world can win its battle against polio.
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