The $720 million funding gap this year for eradicating polio is a bit closer to being closed. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK government announced funding today at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, of $102 million and $63.7m (£40m) respectively.
Their announcements follow a pledge yesterday by the Gates Foundation and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, to give $37 million to vaccinate children against polio in Afghanistan and Pakistan. A spokesman for the World Health Organization, which leads the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, said that money would go to the two countries’ health ministries to hire the approximately 1 million health care workers needed to go into the mountainous regions where both polio and Islamic extremists cause problems. About 35 million kids under the age of five need to be vaccinated.
“These new investments come at a critical time in the fight against polio,” said Margaret Chan, Director General of the WHO, in a statement. “We have a window of opportunity now, with cases at an all time low. But if there is polio anywhere we are at risk of polio everywhere.”
The goal of eradicating polio hangs in the balance as donors will not indefinitely fund an effort that has remained 99 percent successful for the past 10 years, with the remaining 1 percent persisting. The new deadline for eradication is 2012.
The virus is still endemic in India, Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan, although there has been some progress, said Neal Nathanson, polio expert at University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine. A new bivalent polio vaccine introduced in 2009 has been effective in India. And attitudes have improved in Nigeria, where people used to believe the vaccine would make their children sterile. Cases of the disease dropped by 95% last year in both nations, according to WHO.
The front lines now seem to be Pakistan and the bordering foothills of Afghanistan. Pakistan had 140 cases last year, up from 86 previously. Afghanistan saw a slight decrease, from 31 cases in 2009 to 24 last year.
A polio officer in the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) in Pakistan, where many of the cases were recorded, told the Inter Press Service that administering the vaccine in the region is a “herculean task.”
Without complete eradication, the threat of outbreaks in pockets overlooked by the vaccination drive looms large. The virus, when in circulation, is remarkably good at finding vulnerable pockets, said Nathanson. Polio from Nigeria and elsewhere has traveled to dozens of nations in Africa over the past decade, cropping up in places that were previously declared polio-free, he said.
For example, the Republic of Congo saw a sudden outbreak last year, with more than 150 people dying. Young men, between 15 and 25 years of age, were primarily affected and mortality rate was unusually high, at more than 40 percent, according to WHO.
The hypothesis is, people who did not receive the oral polio vaccine during the years of the civil war are now vulnerable to outbreaks.
The WHO is now working on mathematical models to identify other vulnerable pockets to predict future outbreaks.