Washington, D.C., October 23 2018 (PAHO / WHO)—Countries of the Americas must take immediate action to increase polio vaccination coverage to 95%, advises the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO).
This call follows reports that coverage in many countries of the Americas is below recommended levels, and comes just before World Polio Day, which is recognized on 24 October each year.
The Americas have remained free from cases of wild poliovirus for 27 years, with the last case detected on August 23, 1991, in Peru. The countries of the region were able to eliminate polio by achieving high rates of vaccination coverage of children and through sustained epidemiological surveillance to ensure early detection of any outbreaks.
“The Region of the Americas is polio free but as long as even one case of polio exists in any part of the world, we are still at risk,” said Dr. Jarbas Barbosa, Assistant Director of PAHO. “By achieving and maintaining high vaccination coverage and by strengthening epidemiological surveillance, we can make the dream of a polio free future for the world, a reality,” he added.
Recent reports, however, show that countries are not maintaining the 95% vaccination coverage rate required at all levels to prevent polio transmission. This means that some communities are at risk of being unable to prevent an outbreak should an imported case occur or if there is an emergence of vaccine-derived poliovirus (VDPV).
Polio and the Americas
Poliomyelitis is a highly contagious disease caused by a virus that invades the nervous system, resulting in paralysis in a matter of hours. It mostly affects children under the age of 5 and is transmitted by person-to-person. While there is no cure, the virus is preventable by vaccine. Polio vaccine, given multiple times, can protect a child for life.
In 1975, nearly 6,000 cases of polio were reported in the Region of the Americas and in 1991, the last six cases were detected. Three years later, in 1994, the disease was formally declared eliminated from the Region. Since then, no child has been paralyzed by wild poliovirus in the Americas.
As the first region of the world to eliminate polio, PAHO and the Americas has led the way toward a world free from the disease.
PAHO is currently working with countries to ensure that every year more than 95% of children under the age of 1 are vaccinated against polio in every municipality in the countries of the Americas. Efforts also focus on increased monitoring of cases of acute flaccid paralysis and on meeting the requirements of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, the Polio Eradication and Endgame Strategic Plan, and the Global Polio Eradication Certification Commission.
“There is no place for complacency when it comes to keeping the Americas polio-free,” said Cuauhtémoc Ruiz Matus, Head of the Comprehensive Family Immunization Unit at PAHO. “Vaccination coverage rates must be increased immediately in order to protect the children of our Region from this deadly disease. As long as polio exists anywhere, it is a threat to children everywhere.”
While polio cases have decreased worldwide by over 99% since 1988, from over 350,000 estimated cases to just 20 reported cases as of October this year, as long as one single child remains infected with poliovirus, children in all countries are at risk. The poliovirus can easily be imported into a polio-free country and can spread rapidly amongst unimmunized populations, which is why maintaining a high rate of vaccination coverage is so important.
Today, the world is closer than ever to achieving the goal of eradicating polio. Globally, there are now fewer cases than at any time in history. Four of the six WHO regions have been certified as polio-free, and only one of the three types of wild poliovirus (type 1) continues to circulate in the world.
The hard work that has resulted in these achievements was led by the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, headed by WHO, Rotary International, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), UNICEF, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, in addition to the commitment and efforts from the countries themselves.
Global polio eradication will mean a disease-free world for future generations as well as economic savings of between $40-50 billion. Failing to meet the target of eradication would result in a reemergence of the disease, with an estimated 200,000 cases every year around the world.
“With everyone’s commitment, poliomyelitis will be the first disease to be eradicated in the 21st century,” said Dr. Barbosa. “We must all take action now to protect our children.”
World Polio Day
World Polio Day was established by Rotary International over a decade ago to commemorate the birth of Jonak Salk, who led the first team to develop a vaccinate against poliomyelitis. Since then, the day has been used to raise awareness of the importance of vaccination in eradicating the virus. The day is celebrated each year on 24 October.