Call for renewed global commitment on World Polio Day | Asia Pacific

Call for renewed global commitment on World Polio Day

Call for renewed global commitment on World Polio Day

Updated 29 February 2012, 11:55 AEDT

Monday marks World Polio Day, a day set aside to remember the disease that threatens children with paralysis, sometimes even death.

Twenty years ago, polio killed or paralysed 350,000 children each year worldwide.

Since then, lifesaving vaccines have dramatically reduced the spread of polio with 99 percent of the world free from the disease.

But a recent outbreak in China, as well as persistent challenges in Africa and Pakistan, show that polio is still a serious threat.

Presenter: Sen Lam

Speaker: Helen Evans, deputy chief executive officer of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation

EVANS: I think the final one per cent is always difficult, because you're talking about children who are in war zones, children who are in situations of civil unrest, children who are in very rural and remote areas where sometimes there are no health services or health services that are only intermittently available, because of road, weather etc, so it's the most difficult. I think the polio story is a really very positive story, because as you said, there's only one per cent left to do and there's only four countries where it's described as endemic, therefore it's established there and three are actually in the Asia-Pacific region, so that's Pakistan, Afghanistan and India. But the trouble is as you say, it's such a highly infectious disease that it's actually then goes across the borders, so then it's now happening in China etc. I think that we're nearly there and what we really want to do is finish the job just like we did with small pox and eradicate it completely.

LAM: But as you say, it obviously still poses a challenge to those four countries that you mentioned. Why is it so difficult? What are the special challenges that those four countries face?

EVANS: I think in all honesty, we need to say that countries with low immunisation coverage, the ones where they're the real challenges with polio transmission. So these are countries where the general health service has problems and where the general immunisation coverage is low and that's a combination of I think of the income level of those countries. It's also how strong their health systems are and how strong their general immunisation coverage is.

LAM: And what about public education, because we've had reports of for instance, rumours being spread by conservative clerics that vaccine was an American plot to sterilise innocent Muslim children. Are such rumours posing a problem for immunisation?

EVANS: I think undoubtedly in pockets, in places there are, that's the particular reason the fourth country where it's endemic that is in the Asia-Pacific region is Nigeria and in northern Nigeria that is clearly the case. There is concern, there's misinformation around and there are particular groups. There's a lot of work going on with the Imams in those areas to try and rectify that, but that is a challenge. I mean it requires a partnership approach from the top to the bottom. It requires political leadership to say this is the high priority for our country, then it requires an effort all the way down to right down to that little last remote health outpost with the health worker, sometimes it's a non-government service out in those remote areas, everybody working together.

LAM: And where political leadership is concerned, the world's leaders are meeting in Perth this week, in Western Australia, for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, CHOGM. What action would you like to see Commonwealth countries take on this polio issue?

EVANS: I think it would be very important for them to give it a profile, give it visibility, to talk about it, to make a financial commitment. This is expensive work, this last one per cent getting out to those report areas doesn't come cheaply, so I think for CHOGM and for those CHOGM members that can contribute, I think that's incredibly important, but I think also to give a very strong, solid message that politically as leaders who can influence, they see it as a high priority. I think that's incredibly important.

I'm also here in Tokyo at the moment at an Asia--Pacific high level meeting on innovative partnerships in health that the Japanese government's convened and polio is obviously on the agenda here. So it's getting everybody to focus on it and take it seriously and make it clear that it's something that we've got to do.

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