Hundreds of scientists, doctors and other experts from around the world on Thursday launched the Scientific Declaration on Polio Eradication, emphasising that an end to the paralyzing disease was achievable, and endorsed a comprehensive new strategy to secure a lasting polio-free world by 2018. The event coincides with the 58th anniversary of the announcement of Jonas Salk’s revolutionary vaccine.

The more than 400 signatories urged governments, international organisations and civil society to seize the historic and unique opportunity to end polio and protect the world's most vulnerable children and future generations from this debilitating but preventable disease.

The declaration calls for full funding and implementation of the Polio Eradication and Endgame Strategic Plan 2013-2018, developed by the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI). With polio cases at an all-time low and the disease remaining endemic in just three countries, the GPEI estimates that it can be completely ended by 2018 at a cost of $5.5 billion.

“India’s successful elimination of wild poliovirus is the best proof that eradication is possible,” said Naveen Thacker, former president of the Indian Academy of Paediatrics. “But now is not the time to rest. As India’s lessons and innovations are applied in the remaining endemic countries, we and others must work to build the systems necessary to ensure that no child anywhere is ever affected by polio again. The Strategic Plan gives us a framework to do so.”

The declaration notes that vaccines have already protected hundreds of millions of children, and eliminated one of the three types of wild poliovirus, proving that eradication is scientifically feasible.

It calls on the international community to meet the goals in the GPEI plan for delivering vaccines to more children at risk, particularly in Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan, where polio remains endemic and emergency action plans launched over the past year have resulted in significant improvements in vaccine coverage.

Achieving polio eradication requires efforts interrelated with strengthening routine immunisation, a new focus of the GPEI plan. As the last cases of polio are contained, high levels of routine immunisation will be critical. At the same time, resources and learning from polio eradication efforts can be used to strengthen coverage of other life-saving vaccines, including for children who have never been reached with any health intervention before, says the declaration.

The declaration notes that only 223 new cases due to wild poliovirus were recorded in 2012, a historic low and more than 99 per cent decrease from the estimated 350,000 cases in 1988.

This year, just 16 new cases were reported as of April 9. India, long regarded as the most difficult place to eliminate polio, has not recorded a case in more than two years, it says.

The signatories from 80 countries include Nobel laureates, vaccine and infectious disease experts, public health school deans and paediatricians.

More than 40 leading universities and schools of public health and medicine are promoting the declaration on their websites, including Aga Khan University, the Harvard School of Public Health, the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, Al Azhar University (Egypt), the University of Cape Town, Redeemers University (Nigeria) and Christian Medical College, Vellore (India).