On Thursday, Oct. 24, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) is celebrated World Polio Day and 25 years of being certified polio-free in North, Central and South America, as well as in the Caribbean. There is no cure for polio, but it´s preventable with vaccination.
“This key achievement is the result of many factors to keep the risk of recirculation of the virus at bay: countries´ commitment to immunization, health workers´ efforts to vaccinate 95% of the children in every corner of the continent, maintaining high coverage rates over the years, and having strong surveillance,” said Cuauhtemoc Ruiz Matus, head of Immunizations at PAHO.
Before widespread immunization against polio, almost 6,000 children were paralyzed in the Americas due to the disease. In 1991, the last 6 cases of polio were reported, and in 1994, the Region was the first in the world to be certified polio-free.
In August 1991, Luis Fermín Tenorio Cortez, a child born in the mountains of Junín whohadn´t been vaccinated, Peru, was the last victim of wild poliovirus in the Region of the Americas.
Progress in vaccinating against polio has continued. Today, only Pakistan and Afghanistan report cases, and the world is getting closer to eradication.
Currently, children in the Americas have guaranteed access to vaccines that are free, safe and high-quality. Vaccination has been considered a social good, with universal and equal access to everyone.
PAHO helps make vaccination sustainable through its Revolving Fund, which most Latin America and Caribbean countries use to purchase the vaccines, needles and other supplies used by the immunization programs. The fund helps countries by providing vaccines and supplies at affordable prices.
“We are currently in the final phase of polio eradication — the endgame — where only one out of three wild polioviruses is still active,” said Dr. Ruiz. “Countries should maintain vaccination coverage at or above 95% and strengthen epidemiological surveillance.”
As long as even one child anywhere is infected with polio, all children everywhere are at risk of getting the disease if they´re not vaccinated. However, Ruiz noted, a polio-free world is possible and close to being achieved.
Polio cases have decreased more than 99% since 1988, when it was estimated that there were 350,000 cases in more than 125 endemic countries, compared to 33 cases of polio reported in 2018 by two countries. More than 15 million people worldwide who can walk today would have been paralyzed without vaccination.
The global efforts that resulted in those achievements were led by the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), headed by WHO, Rotary International, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and UNICEF.
Polio eradication — a world free of poliomyelitis for future generations and economic savings of $40-50 billion — requires high coverage rates in all corners of the world in order to stop the transmission of this highly contagious virus. Barriers to that goal include lack of infrastructure, remote areas, displaced populations, conflicts and insecurity, or resisting the vaccine.
Without eradication, a resurgence of the disease is possible and could result in the appearance of up to 200,000 new cases worldwide each year within 10 years.
Poliomyelitis was the second vaccine-preventable disease to be eliminated from the Americas (1994), preceded by the regional eradication of smallpox (1971), and followed by the elimination of rubella and congenital rubella syndrome (2015), and by the elimination of measles in 2016.