The World Health Organization (WHO) announced that South-East Asia completed five years without any case of wild poliovirus, the infectious, paralysis-inducing disease that affects mainly children and for which there is no known cure.
Calling it “a remarkable achievement” in the face of continued threat of virus importation from the remaining polio-endemic countries, WHO Regional Director Poonam Khetrapal Singh said that the last reported case of wild poliovirus in the region was in West Bengal in 2011.
South-East Asia includes Bangladesh, Bhutan, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, India, Indonesia, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Timor-Leste.
“Countries in the region have been making commendable efforts, stepping up vigilance against polio and continuing to protect children against the crippling virus,” she said, adding that completing half a decade without any case of wild poliovirus is “another achievement and a reminder that we need to continue our efforts until the disease is eradicated globally”.
According to WHO, polio cases have decreased by over 99 per cent since 1988 from an estimated 350,000 cases then, to 359 reported cases in 2014.
Afghanistan and Pakistan are the only two countries that remain polio-endemic. Only six other countries are still infected with wild poliovirus—Guinea, Madagascar, Myanmar, Nigeria, Ukraine and Laos People’s Democratic Republic.
In addition, only eight more countries are vulnerable to infection. These are Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Iraq, Israel, Somalia, South Sudan and Syria. “We need to ensure that our efforts and investment over the years to eradicate polio do not go to waste,” Singh added.
There are two types of polio vaccines that are used to combat the disease—the injected vaccine, which contains the inactive virus, and the oral vaccine, which contains a live virus.
As part of the Polio End-Game Strategy, which aims to eradicate polio globally by 2018, countries in the region are accelerating the introduction of one dose of injectable inactivated polio vaccine (IPV) in childhood immunisation schedules, besides plans for a globally synchronised, phased and sequential withdrawal of oral polio vaccines from the programme.
This strategy is targeted at all polio cases, including the rare cases of vaccine-derived polio.
Singh explained how “efforts to stop polio and now to keep the region polio-free, have been possible due to numerous innovative strategies that helped strengthen immunisation and disease surveillance and promote community ownership”.
“While these lessons learnt are now being adopted by the remaining endemic areas, countries in the region need to replicate these strategies and optimally use the polio programme resources for other public health goals, particularly in the areas of immunisation, surveillance and emergency response.”
“A polio-free world is in sight,” Singh added.