The polio-free certification given by the World Health Organisation to its 11-nation South-East Asia Region, which includes India, has become a beacon of hope at a time when there is much to be gloomy about in terms of ridding the world of a virus that has crippled and even killed countless children. When the nations of the world committed themselves to eradicating polio in 1988, it was a goal they intended to achieve by the year 2000. But the target date slipped repeatedly. The strategic plan approved last year aims to stop transmission of all naturally-occurring ‘wild’ polio viruses by the end of this year and complete the task of eradication by 2018. The first of those objectives appears to be in jeopardy. Polio cases worldwide during 2013 recorded an 82 per cent increase over the previous year. Although the polio-endemic countries of Afghanistan and Nigeria more than halved the number of polio cases last year, Pakistan registered a 60 per cent increase. “The current situation in Pakistan is a powder keg that could ignite widespread polio transmission,” warned the Independent Monitoring Board, a body established to evaluate global eradication efforts, in a letter sent in February 2014 to the WHO Director-General, Margaret Chan. Worse still, the virus has reappeared in countries that had been free of it. Viruses from Pakistan have surfaced in the Middle East, and those from Nigeria produced a resurgence of polio in the Horn of Africa.
The virus could well find its way to more countries, and the situation is serious. Dr. Chan has called a meeting next month of an Emergency Committee under the International Health Regulations to advise on measures to reduce the risk of further international spread. One such step could be the compulsory vaccination of travellers from polio-infected areas. India recently made it mandatory that those coming from countries with polio produce a certificate of vaccination with an oral polio vaccine. As long as the virus circulates in any part of the world, all countries free of it need to be vigilant and stop it from getting a foothold in their territory. Despite the current unpromising outlook for global polio eradication, it would be unwise to give up in despair. As recently as in 2009, almost half the world's polio cases were occurring in this country. Yet, India had its last polio case just two years later, paving the way for the South-East Asia Region’s certification. As the Americas, Western Pacific and Europe have already received such certification, four out of five children in the world now live in countries that have eliminated polio. The global community must find the will and the means to end this scourge once and for all.