Eradicating an infectious disease of humans on a worldwide scale is no simple task. In fact, it is so difficult mankind has only achieved it once before – with smallpox.
Currently (with massive effort) we are on track to eradicate a few more diseases, such as polio, the measles and malaria. But even with all the effort we have made towards its eradication, the World Health Assembly voted to renew polio as a global emergency in May. This comes at a time when cases of the deadly virus are at an all-time low.
Eradication of Polio
How can polio be a global emergency when it’s been almost entirely eradicated?
First, there are only three countries (Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria) where polio is endemic (occurring without spreading from somewhere else). But in these countries the reported number of cases has actually gone up.
Second, the polio eradication effort has fallen short near $1-billion in funding due to tough economic times.
This can come as a shock as the efforts to eradicate this terrible disease have made huge leaps forward in recent years with help from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has donated $1 billion to polio eradication since 2009.
With the Gates Foundation’s help, there were just 650 cases of polio in 2011, down from 1,352 in 2010, and just this year India was removed from the WHO list of polio-endemic countries.
Growth of Polio
But in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria, the number of cases has risen in 2011. In Pakistan, the number of cases increased from 144 to 197; in Afghanistan from 25 to 80; in Nigeria from 21 to 62.
Although these infection rates are very low (especially for a disease that used to infect millions), the $9 billion eradication effort will only be successful once new polio cases cease to exist, ending the spread once and for all. This could lead to $50 billion in saved health costs.
Unfortunately, if we cannot continue to fight the disease at the same rapid pace, it’s likely the number of cases will continue to rise, until the disease affects hundreds of thousands of children again. Even one small outbreak can change the course of the eradication effort.
Future of Polio
Why can’t we continue on our current path of mass immunization? The answer is simple; the immunizations efforts so far are just not feasible on a regular basis. And even vaccines are available; it’s not always easy to vaccinate everyone, especially when some even prefer not to be vaccinated for various personal reasons.
The polio eradication shows us just how difficult it is to rid ourselves of any disease. We are so close, yet we still need to apply pressure. Amazing strides have been made so far in the fight against polio, but there is still much to do.
These diseases are similarly difficult to eradicate and will remain with us until every single case has been stamped out. We believe we will get there one day, but until that time all we can do is be prepared.