Poliomyelitis is a highly infectious viral disease that attacks the nervous system. Children under five years of age are the most vulnerable to the disease, but timely immunization can prevent infection. Approximately one out of every 200-400 children infected will suffer from paralysis and even death.
In 1998, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), a partnership of UNICEF, the World Health Organization, Rotary International and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, began spearheading an effort to support country governments to immunize every child against polio until transmission stops and the world is polio-free.
Since the GPEI’s momentous launch, nearly five million children, who otherwise would have been paralyzed and incapacitated by polio, are walking, able and symptoms-free. The number of polio cases reported annually has decreased by over 99% – from 350,000 in 1988 to 1,606 cases in 2009. This rapid success has been achieved through a global campaign to immunize to children through mass campaigns, known as National Immunization Days (NIDs).
But the work is not complete. Polio remains active in four endemic and several re-infected countries. In 2010, the four remaining endemic countries, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, accounted for almost 85% of all new polio cases (Gobal PolioEradication Initiative case count - 39 cases out of a total of 51 cases). Polio reservoirs in the endemic countries have been reduced to specific geographic areas and limited populations. Through the review of epidemiological data and coverage reports, experts are identifying the reasons for the continued transmission of wild polio virus in these countries and developing appropriate strategies to improve immunization coverage.
UNICEF, along with global partners and local governments, is working to overcome the remaining obstacles to eradication. Each country offers a unique set of challenges which require local solutions. These challenges include intense virus circulation in northern India, security problems in Afghanistan and northern Pakistan and a lack of quality operations in northern Nigeria. Operational challenges are highest in regions with hard to reach, mobile populations and poor security.
UNICEF contributes to the GPEI by concentrating on the processes of delivering vaccines through our Supply Division in Copenhagen, and helping country programmes develop communication strategies that are vital to local acceptance of the vaccine, and also building capacity to rapidly respond to outbreaks in re-infected countries.