The second out of three wild poliovirus strains has been eradicated. This was officially declared by the World Health Organization (WHO) on World Polio Day on 24 October. Since efforts to exterminate polio began in 1988, incidence has fallen by 99 per cent. According to WHO, today 18 million people can walk who would otherwise be paralysed.
Originally, officials expected polio would be eradicated worldwide by 2016. However, this was only achieved with one of the three circulating wild virus types. In 1999, the last patient with type 2 was registered in India – since 2015, it has been considered extinct. Extermination of a second type was announced on World Polio Day at the end of October. An independent expert commission of the WHO declared type 3 extinct worldwide. The last case occurred 2012 in Nigeria. This means that only wild poliovirus type 1 continues to exist. It still occurs in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where 33 cases with this pathogen were registered in 2018.
The WHO is optimistic that it will be possible to eradicate polio completely. “We have good news from Africa regarding this,” says Professor David Salisbury, chair of the WHO Certification Commissions for Poliomyelitis Eradication – “a tremendous achievement”.1
The eradication of type 3 proves, as the WHO says, that “a polio-free world is possible”. The key to success will be the continuing commitment of the international development community. During Global Health Week in November 2019, the “Reaching the Last Mile Forum” in Abu Dhabi United Arab Emirates was also dedicated to the eradication of the world’s deadliest diseases.
According to the WHO, a study by the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), shows that investing in the eradication of polio is worthwhile. The GPEI is a global initiative comprised of national governments working with the WHO, Rotary International Network, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, UNICEF and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The study says that through efforts to eradicate polio, the world has saved more than USD 27 billion in healthcare costs since 1988. A sustainable polio-free world will generate another $14 billion in savings by 2050 compared to the cost that countries would incur by working to control the virus indefinitely.
Without high vaccination rates, however, the threat remains that the wild polioviruses could again spread, warns the WHO. In addition, unvaccinated people can become infected with live viruses from the polio vaccine. Statistics from UNICEF show that every year 450 million children in risk countries must be vaccinated for polio. That is often not achieved due to widespread poverty, poor healthcare infrastructure and an inadequate security situation. According to the children’s fund, it provides one billion vaccine doses each year for multiple vaccination, half of the world’s needs.
Currently, polio remains incurable. Survivors of the infection often suffer paralysis of the arms or legs. With advancing age, the symptoms can again intensify with the onset of muscle fatigue. Since 2002, the whole of Europe has been considered free of circulating wild polioviruses. However, it cannot be ruled out that the infection could be reintroduced from other countries.