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Call For Emergency Action On Polio Eradication

A Pakistani man wheels Jamshid, an 8-year-old girl with polio, around the outskirts of the capital Islamabad last July.
Behrouz Mehri
AFP/Getty Images
A Pakistani man wheels Jamshid, an 8-year-old girl with polio, around the outskirts of the capital Islamabad last July.

The drive to wipe polio from the face of the earth is in jeopardy.

Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan are the only three countries left where poliovirus remains endemic. But work to put the paralyzing virus on the ropes there is in danger of failing. Cases in all three countries jumped last year.

Weak public health systems, armed conflicts and corruption have hurt vaccination efforts. Now leading public health officials have proposed an emergency plan of action to get things back on track..

"Polio eradication is at a tipping point," says a report published by the World Health Organization today. "If immunity is not raised in the three remaining countries to levels necessary to stop poliovirus transmission, polio eradication will fail."

The emergency plan calls for stepped-up vaccination campaigns in areas of all three counties where polio poses the biggest threat.

Another goal: raise more money for eradication. There's about a $1 billion shortfall in funding for eradication.

Despite setbacks, there's also been reason for hope. New cases are at an all-time low — 55 cases so far this year.

And in January, India marked a year without a new case of polio. That's a milestone in the global effort to eliminate polio. It wasn't that long ago that India reported as many as 100,000 cases a year.

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Scott Hensley edits stories about health, biomedical research and pharmaceuticals for NPR's Science desk. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he has led the desk's reporting on the development of vaccines against the coronavirus.
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  • Philanthropist Bill Gates says the time is now for the world to redouble efforts to eliminate polio by funding efforts to vaccinate vulnerable people against the disease. An international initiative to wipe out the disease faces a $720 million budget shortfall.
  • The absence of a new polio case in India is a milestone in the decades-long effort to wipe the poliovirus from the face of the planet. Only a few years ago, India reported more polio cases than any other country in the world.
  • The polio strains isolated from 10 children in China were linked to virus circulating in Pakistan. They're the first confirmed cases of polio identified in China since 1999, according to the World Health Organization.