Polio eradication push nearing endgame again

In April 1955 data from a successful polio vaccine trial was presented. Within 18 months, photos of a smiling Elvis Presley receiving a polio jab were published as part of an education push. And by 1979, a disease that 27 years earlier paralyzed 21,269 was eradicated in the U.S.

The last case of wild poliovirus poliomyelitis in the Americas came just 12 years after the end of polio in the U.S. Over the next decade polio vaccines racked up success after success, clearing the disease from Europe, China and other parts of the world. The year 2000 target for total global eradication came and went though. And then in 2002 resistance to immunization in parts of India led to an outbreak of the disease. Religious and cultural objections have continued to hinder the campaign.

Despite continued resistance in some areas, the number of cases of polio fell to 291 last year. In the first few months of 2013 the World Health Organization has found a total of 22 cases in five countries. The recent decline has emboldened scientists to again set a target for eradication of polio. More than 400 scientists from 80 countries have signed up in support of a plan to end polio by 2018.

Instability in Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan could scupper vaccination plans though. In recent months militant Islamists have killed volunteer vaccinators in Pakistan and Nigeria. The use of a vaccination scheme as a front for CIA intelligence gathering was reportedly a motivating factor in the killings. To cut risks, the 2018 plan calls for short, low-profile vaccination campaigns. Pragmatic, realpolitik tactics could help too. Pakistani immunization expert professor Zulfiqar Bhutta told the Guardian: "If needed, as I think it is, [there should be] negotiations with the insurgents to make progress."

Whatever approach is used, the campaign will need money. The scientists have set a budget of $5.5 billion for ending polio, $2 billion of which must still be raised. As seen in the past though, it costs when inaction causes a resurgence in polio. The Independent reports Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation director Jay Wenger as saying it cost $500 million to fix a resurgence in Africa in the mid-2000s. The Gates Foundation and Rotary International are expected to add to the coffers of the eradication plan to end such outbreaks of polio forever.

- here's the Guardian article
- get more in the Independent piece
- check out the PBS polio history