A scourge that medical science can eradicate

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The Independent Online

To those of us fortunate enough to reside in the developed world, polio is but a fading memory. The epidemics of the first half of the last century are unlikely to be repeated in the West due to the discovery of a vaccine in the 1950s. Children born today will grow up blissfully unaware of it. But there are still parts of the world where the disease survives. Every year, children in parts of Africa and South Asia are crippled or killed by a virus that ravages the central nervous system. The scourge of polio may be history for most of us, but for them it is painfully real.

We therefore welcome the news that the World Health Organisation's vaccination programme is on course to eradicate polio globally by the end of 2004. And we applaud the efforts of that organisation in overcoming the difficulties placed before it in the pursuit of that long-standing goal.

The World Health Organisation's polio eradication initiative, which began in the late 1980s, was hugely successful in its early years. In 1988, there were 100,000 new cases of polio around the world, and the disease was endemic in 125 countries. Last year, only 700 new cases were reported. But in a handful of states, the disease has proved particularly stubborn. The latest bout of optimism that the disease will finally be vanquished is due to the resumption of the vaccination campaign in Nigeria, the country responsible for almost half of the world's new cases. The suspicions of some Muslim leaders that the anti-polio injections make women infertile caused vaccination programmes to be halted last year. Unchecked, the disease spread into neighbouring African states, raising the spectre of a full-blown epidemic. Now the vaccine is again available on the ground, the disease will surely be driven back.

Despite this success, however, there is no room for complacency. Unless the World Health Organisation campaign makes up a funding shortfall, it may have to postpone some of its vaccination programmes. This would be unforgivable. The world must summon up the political will for one last push, and eradicate a disease that mankind should never have allowed to linger into this century.