Polio has officially been eradicated in the South East Asia region, global health officials announced on Thursday, which means that 80 percent of the world is now free of the crippling disease. Officials from the World Health Organization (WHO) are hailing the news as a “historic milestone” in the ongoing fight to beat the polio virus.
South East Asia joins three other WHO regions that have already been declared polio free: the Americas, the Western Pacific, and Europe. But thanks to persistent outbreaks in countries like Somalia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Syria — where war and terror are keeping the disease alive — the Eastern Mediterranean and African regions have not yet achieved that status.
Just five years ago, India was home to nearly half of all global polio cases, and over a 170 million children under the age of five needed to be vaccinated for the deadly disease. Overpopulation and unsanitary drinking conditions allowed the polio virus to spread rapidly among kids in the country. But since then, the country has successfully eradicated the disease with a coordinated immunization effort involving health workers, government officials, religious leaders, United Nations agencies, and Bollywood celebrities. Almost 2.3 million vaccine administrators helped target the rural and low-income communities that traditionally lack access to public health tools.
In light of the obstacles that needed to be overcome in India, health officials point out that the region’s success in defeating polio is a huge step forward for the global health community.
“This ceremony… marks one of the biggest public health achievements,” Poonam Khetrapal Singh, WHO’s Southeast Asia director, explained at the event to announce the milestone. “It is a day that all countries fought hard for, and a day when all stakeholders come together to celebrate the victory of mankind over a dreaded disease that, for centuries, has killed and disabled legions.”
Nonetheless, public health experts warn that the threat posed by polio still looms. It’s a highly contagious disease that’s at risk of spreading further as long as it remains an issue in places like Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan — where conflict and violence is keeping vaccination rates low. Parents who decide against vaccinating their kids are putting them at risk for potentially contracting it, even in regions where it doesn’t typically occur.
“Every child in the world is at risk of contracting polio until such a time as the wild polio virus is completely eradicated from every part of the world,” Deepak Kapur, who serves on Rotary International’s India National Polio Plus Committee, pointed out to BBC News. “It is not good enough to wipe it out on one continent and not the rest of the world because today the world is just one global village. The only way to keep polio away is through immunization.”