Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 November 2019

'Unwavering commitment' needed in final push to eradicate polio

On World Polio Day, the World Health Organisation has warned there is no room for complacency in the fight against the debilitating disease

A health worker marks the finger of a child after administering polio vaccination to children in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in April 2019. Muhammad Sadiw / EPA
A health worker marks the finger of a child after administering polio vaccination to children in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in April 2019. Muhammad Sadiw / EPA

The world faces hundreds of thousands of new polio cases every year in the next decade unless leaders show “unwavering commitment” to tackle the debilitating disease, the World Health Organisation said.

The warning came as 72 new cases of polio were recorded in Pakistan this year, the highest number since 2015. The number is an increase on the 33 cases found in both Pakistan and Afghanistan last year.

The UN health body said that, despite the potentially fatal infectious disease now only being found in small pockets across the two countries, there is no room for complacency if polio is truly to be overcome

The UAE has been leading efforts to eliminate the disease with the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, personally donating more than Dh600 million towards eradication campaigns since 2011.

But political unrest, poor health infrastructure and government negligence in Pakistan and Afghanistan threaten to derail efforts.

POLIO-FIGHT
POLIO-FIGHT

Since 2014, the UAE has leveraged its resources and expertise on the ground in Pakistan through the Emirates Polio Campaign to bring the vaccine to remote regions of the country that were previously unreachable.

The work of the UAE Pakistan Assistance Programme, which launched on the orders of President Sheikh Khalifa and Sheikh Mohamed, who is also Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, helped administer 419 million vaccines.

The campaign is being carried out in various regions of Pakistan with the support of 106,000 community health workers, including doctors and nurses, and more than 25,000 safety and security staff. They have immunised nearly 16 million children in Pakistan each month this year, reported state news agency Wam.

“Sheikh Mohamed’s approach and humanitarian vision towards the protection of the world’s children and boosting international efforts to wipe out contagious and fatal diseases are among the fundamental factors which organisations and poor countries rely on to achieve their goals to protect peoples and innocent children,” said Abdullah Al Ghafli, director of the UAE Pakistan Assistance Programme.

He said it helped form positive and strategic partnerships with organisations including Unicef, WHO and the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation.

In 2011, Sheikh Mohamed and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation donated a total of Dh367 million to distribute vaccines to vulnerable Afghan and Pakistani children.

There is no cure for polio but it can be prevented and globally eradicated by immunising every child.

Only 30 years ago, the disease paralysed more than 350,000 children a year in 125 countries. Since then, cases have dropped 99 per cent but rising anti-vaccination sentiments and misinformation risks the disease’s return in large numbers.

Among the issues are tribal migratory patterns, the geographical isolation of affected communities and misleading claims by extremist groups like the Taliban who have spread rumours that the vaccination programmes are actually an attempt at mass sterilisation.

Nigeria was the last African country to have a polio case but has gone three years without one reported, putting it months away from being declared free of the disease.

The hope is that Afghanistan and Pakistan will soon be able to follow suit. This year, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, a programme created in 1988 with the aim of eliminating the disease by the year 2000, announced an Endgame Strategy that set a new deadline for 2023.

The strategy requires a Dh15.4 billion budget, of which Dh12bn must be raised. To help achieve this goal, pledges will be taken at the Reaching the Last Mile forum in Abu Dhabi on November 19, with the support of Sheikh Mohamed. The event will highlight the commitments of donor governments, philanthropists and private sector leaders towards ending polio.

"This is a reminder that polio eradication is not a forgone conclusion the last mile is the hardest,” said Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, director general of the WHO.

“This will take a determined and unrelenting effort from all of us. Global progress to end polio would not be possible without partners like the UAE."

Updated: October 24, 2019 08:31 AM

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