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Fight isn’t over, but polio on brink of eradication

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Wiping out polio is proving tougher than expected, but world health experts say the disease’s demise is tantalizingly near.

In 1988, there were 350,000 cases. This year, there are just over 500 cases. But this is no time to drop the guard, experts say.

“As long as there is polio somewhere in the world, we’ve learned, it is just one traveler away from being anywhere in the world … including here,” said Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “So it’s very, very important that we stay the course and continue to do whatever it takes to eradicate this problem.”

Gerberding and leaders of the World Health Organization and UNICEF spoke Tuesday in Chicago at the 100th anniversary of the worldwide service organization Rotary International. They praised Rotary’s 20-year drive to eradicate polio worldwide, an effort that has raised more than $600 million.

“Without Rotarians, who provide much of the legwork, the muscle and certainly the brainpower to make these efforts successful, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” Gerberding said.

Vaccination campaigns are proving successful, said Hamid Jafari, director of the Global Immunization Division at the CDC.

Asian countries are “on track for stopping transmission this year,” he said. “The situation in Africa is also looking very good” after a series of immunization campaigns in 23 countries last fall and this spring. He said there are fewer cases now in Africa than there have been in the past five years.

Yet pockets of concern remain. Lee Jong-wook, director-general of WHO, said cases imported from Nigeria, which suspended vaccinations for about a year, “remind us that we must continue to protect the children” and to enlist the commitment of governments to promote anti-polio efforts.

He said $50 million is needed by July to pay for immunization campaigns through this year, and $200 million is needed for 2006.

Rotary president Glenn Estess said his organization would stay involved until the last case of polio is recorded.

“Polio is our priority,” he said. Rotarians have helped transport and administer vaccine, recruit local volunteers, set up vocational training programs for victims and arranged for proper handling of vaccine in remote areas of the world. He said Rotarians have even negotiated cease-fires in war zones so children could be vaccinated.

The amount Rotarians have raised is “a lot of money,” Estess said. “But to me, the labor involved, the commitment of volunteer time, is equal to or outweighs the $600 million.”

The goal once was to stop polio by 2000; now health experts are aiming for next year. Estess said he had hoped he could have announced the last case during this week’s Rotary centennial conference, but “we didn’t get there.”

“When will it be eliminated? No one really knows, but the key is we can eliminate it,” Estess said.

“We can do it, and we believe it will be done.”

By Anita Manning, USA TODAY

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