After a year of shrinking polio cases worldwide, the crippling disease is now on the cusp of being eradicated, said top health officials at Rotary's second annual World Polio Day event on 24 October.
At a special Livestream program -- World Polio Day: Make History Today -- Rotary leaders joined global health experts and celebrity singers to hail the progress of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. After nearly 30 years, the GPEI, which includes Rotary, the World Health Organization, UNICEF, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is on the brink of ending polio by 2018, making it the second infectious disease to be eradicated.
"A world without polio is within our grasp more than at any point in the past," said Tom Frieden, director of the CDC, during a video message to the audience. "The poliovirus continues to lose ground. Next month we will mark two years since the last case of wild poliovirus type 3, giving every appearance of eradication, and leaving only type 1 in the world."
The total number of global cases to date is 247, compared with 298 for the same period last year. Outside Pakistan, which saw its polio cases spike this year, the number of cases has been 35, a dramatic decrease from 187 a year ago. Pakistan accounts for 85 percent of global cases of polio this year, Frieden noted. Pakistan, along with Afghanistan and Nigeria, are three remaining polio endemic countries.
The GPEI is on the verge of a major polio achievement in Nigeria. The country has registered only six cases to date this year. "Nigeria is in excellent position to stop circulation of polio this year," said Frieden. "It has gotten 'this close' to eradicating polio by a remarkable turnaround of the program, implementing an emergency operations center, developing a proactive approach to eradication, finding innovative ways to reach children in insecure areas."
Frieden talked about how Nigeria's Polio Emergency Operations Center aided in the quick and effective response to the country's Ebola outbreak. Senior officials from the center were sent to Lagos to lead the effort. They opened an Ebola treatment unit and conducted contact tracing with up to 500 people per day.
"In spite of these efforts, polio activities did not suffer," said Frieden. "This is the legacy of polio eradication in action, and it saved lives by successfully stopping the outbreak."
Most of the polio cases in Afghanistan in 2014 are the result of reintroduction from Pakistan, said James Alexander, senior medical epidemiologist for the CDC. But the country has made significant progress the last two years because of the implementation of its emergency action plan, he said.
"To ensure progress in 2015, there needs to be engagement with new national leadership, intensified focus on 'missed' children, and continued dialogue with other countries," Alexander told attendees.
In March a key milestone was met when the World Health Organization certified its 11-country Southeast Asia region had eradicated polio. Now, 80 percent of the world's population live in areas that are certified polio-free.
Co-sponsored by Rotary and Sanofi Pasteur, the program took place before a live audience in Chicago and streamed online for viewers worldwide. Time magazine science and technology editor Jeffery Kluger moderated the event.
Olivier Charmeil, president and CEO of Sanofi Pasteur, the largest manufacturer of polio vaccine, said in a video address that this year's World Polio Day is significant "because we are beginning the last chapter on polio."
Led by Nepal, a group of 120 countries will introduce the inactivated polio vaccine in the next few months. Charmeil said IPV, an injectable polio vaccine, will be part of all routine immunization programs in every country around the world.
"I look forward to the day we can stand together, alongside Rotary and the other international partners, the day we declare the world polio free," Charmeil told the audience.
Rotary General Secretary John Hewko praised the work of the GPEI, calling the organization "perhaps the most ambitious and effective public-private partnership ever assembled." More than 2.5 billion children have been vaccinated since its launch.
The annual number of polio cases has fallen from 350,000 in 1988 to 416 in 2013, and 222 so far this year, a remarkable decrease of more than 99 percent. UNICEF estimates that 10 million people would have otherwise been infected, while 1.5 million lives have been saved.
Rotary has contributed more than $1.2 billion to polio eradication since taking on the disease in 1979. That amount got a significant boost earlier this week after Rotary announced it will provide an additional $44.7 million toward the polio fight.
"Once we wipe polio from the face of the planet, we will not only have ensured no child will ever again be paralyzed by this terrible disease, we will have set the stage for the next major global health initiative, whatever it may be," said Hewko.
Celebrities sing Rotary's praise
Reggae star Ziggy Marley, a celebrity End Polio Now ambassador, opened the event via video welcoming participants and performing a song.
Minda Dentler, a polio survivor and Ironman competitor, took the stage and shared her personal story of the disease. Dentler, who contracted polio as a child in India, earned the title of the first official female hand cyclist to compete and finish the grueling Ironman World Championship.
"After crossing the finish line I realized that the journey itself was so much bigger than me," said Dentler. "This journey also represents my opportunity to share with the world that it is time to make polio a thing of the past. That same determination I had for sports has driven me to become an advocate for polio eradication."
Tessanne Chin, 2013 winner of the TV show "The Voice" and an End Polio Now ambassador, sang "Always Tomorrow" during the program, and performed by a benefit concert after the event.
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