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Statement – World Polio Day: walking the last mile together towards polio eradication

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Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe

23 October 2020

Vaccines save millions of lives every year.

Thanks to vaccination, smallpox, a disease which once caused millions of deaths every year, became the first disease affecting humans to ever be eradicated in 1980.

Polio could be the next.

In 1988, when the World Health Assembly pledged to make polio eradication a priority, the virus was still present in 125 countries. That same year, Rotary, WHO, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and UNICEF formed the Global Polio Eradication Initiative to bring together key partners and stakeholders in the fight against polio. We were soon joined by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. Through united action, the incidence of wild polio cases has since dropped by over 99%. The WHO European Region was declared polio-free in 2002. By 2017, there were only three countries left in the world reporting cases of wild poliovirus: Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

This success was followed by yet another significant milestone: in 2019, the WHO African Region had passed three consecutive years without any trace of wild poliovirus, which led to the official certification of eradication in August of this year. This means that five of the six WHO regions are now wild polio free, representing 90% of the world's population.

This is not all: two of the three types of wild poliovirus have been eradicated; while Type 2 wild poliovirus was declared eradicated in September 2015, Type 3 was officially declared eradicated on World Polio Day 2019.

Our last remaining task is to hold the line where the virus has been eradicated and remove the last few strongholds where it continues to spread. Our adversary has been reduced to just one type of the virus and just 0.1% of cases in two countries and one region of the world.

Today, on World Polio Day, I wish to congratulate the WHO African Region for its monumental achievement in eradicating polio. This milestone serves as an example of how a region made up of many different countries, cultures and health systems can unlock better health through joint action. It further shows that, guided by a common vision, disease eradication through vaccination is possible.

As a young doctor, I myself worked alongside many dedicated immunization professionals and volunteers in Africa, each of whom helped make this achievement possible. Knowing that future generations of nurses and doctors in Africa and elsewhere in the world will learn about polio from their history textbooks only, without ever having to see a child paralysed by wild poliovirus, touches me deeply.

To commemorate this World Polio Day in the European Region, I congratulate all volunteers, governments and their dedicated health and social care workers for their relentless efforts to leave no one behind in providing children with life-saving polio vaccines.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a stark reminder of the impact infectious diseases can have on our health systems and our communities. It proves that, specifically in times of growing interconnectivity and the rapid exchange of information, global issues need global solutions. Only if governments, institutions and communities join forces, can we create healthier societies.

The mission to eradicate polio represents one of the largest global public health efforts ever initiated, involving partners at all levels across all countries. These range from strengthening cold chain systems and the improvement of disease surveillance to capacity-building of country immunization programme teams, as well as communication and trust-building activities.

Against this backdrop, I wish to commend all countries that strived to maintain routine immunization services as a priority even during the darkest days of the COVID-19 pandemic. With polio cases continuing to occur near the Region's border in Afghanistan and Pakistan, this vigilance is not a luxury, but an absolute necessity to keep the Region polio free. Polio anywhere in the world is a threat to children everywhere if we let our guard down.

Strong health systems serve as the foundation to deliver life-saving vaccines to every last child. Immunization is one of four flagship initiatives of the new European Programme of Work, our agenda for health 2020--25, because lifting the burden of vaccine-preventable diseases is crucial to achieving our collective goal of better health for all.

Thanks to the visionaries who came before us, our generation has been presented with the unique opportunity to wipe out polio for good. We can make history. Vaccinating against polio and many other now preventable diseases is a right and a responsibility.

Everyone, everywhere can do their part -- let's walk the last mile together.