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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

The fight against polio is not over yet

Thanks to the UAE's efforts, the world has made significant gains against polio. But prevention efforts must continue

Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed said "we have almost eradicated polio and we expect to eradicate Guinea worm disease and river blindness". Asim Hafeez / The National
Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed said "we have almost eradicated polio and we expect to eradicate Guinea worm disease and river blindness". Asim Hafeez / The National

Polio is a paralysing and fatal disease that has claimed millions of lives over the decades. It was only in the 1970s that the United States eradicated the disease. Across the world, however, it continued to cripple and kill people, its spread enabled by poor sanitation and rapid urbanisation. In spite of life-saving vaccination campaigns that began in the 1950s, 300,000 people were affected it as late as the 1990s. But, as The National reported, after concerted global efforts, the virus is on the verge of obsolescence.

This year, there have been only 11 polio diagnoses, compared to 37 last year, and the disease exists only in two countries: Pakistan and Afghanistan. Syria reported one case in 2014, but none since then, and Nigeria, which had a pair of cases of polio in 2016 after two years of being polio free, has reported none so far this year. The United Arab Emirates has been at the forefront of combating this disease, especially in Pakistan, where a combination of poor governance, conflict and cultural factors hampered vaccination efforts for decades.

But thanks to the Pakistan Assistance Programme, an initiative of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, there has been extraordinary progress in delivering life-saving vaccines to the remotest parts of the country. As Bill and Melinda Gates, the billionaire US philanthropists, acknowledged earlier this year, the UAE’s efforts have been pivotal to inhibiting the disease’s spread. Next month, the Crown Prince, along with and Bill and Melinda Gates and former US president Jimmy Carter, will host Reaching the Last Mile, a conference of global health leaders that will strive to find innovative ways to eliminate deadly infectious diseases.

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The forum will warn against complacency, a message that cannot be ignored as we mark World Polio Day on Tuesday. “If we stopped all prevention efforts, the number of new polio cases would jump about 200,000 around the world every year”, warned Dr Maha Barakat, the Director of Health Authority Abu Dhabi, in an interview with The National. Though much has been achieved, our fight against poliomyelitis continues.