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Polio: The fight continues

Polio, or poliomyelitis, is a highly contagious infectious disease that attacks a person's nervous system. It can cause total paralysis in a matter of hours. The virus enters the body through the mouth and multiplies in the intestine. Initial symptoms are fever, fatigue, headache, vomiting, neck stiffness, and pain in the limbs.

Polio leads to irreversible paralysis in one case out of 200, and it can sometimes be fatal. Children younger than five years old are most at risk of contracting the disease.

Polio spreads from person to person most often through contact with the feces of an infected person. It can also be transmitted by ingesting contaminated water and food. It is because of these circumstances that people who live in communities with poor hygiene and sanitation conditions are most at risk of contracting polio.

Polio is preventable, yet it has affected millions of people worldwide. Before a polio vaccine was introduced in 1955, the disease was very common in Canada, affecting thousands of children. Canada is now polio-free.

The Global Polio Eradication Initiative

Child receiving the oral vaccine © ACDI-CIDA/Cindy Andrew
Administered in several doses, polio immunization can protect a child for life. The vaccine can be given by injection, using a needle, or orally.

The Global Polio Eradication Initiative launched in 1988, is led by national governments in conjunction with the World Health Organization, Rotary International, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and UNICEF. At the time, polio was endemic in more than 125 countries on five continents, and more than a thousand children each day were partially paralyzed as a result.

Since then, at least 2.5 billion children throughout the world have been immunized against the disease. The number of cases has declined by more than 99 percent since 1988. The disease currently remains endemic in just three countries: Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan.

A region can be certified polio-free when:

  • there are no new cases of polio within a three-year period;
  • disease-surveillance efforts for a country meet international standards; and
  • a country proves its ability to detect, report, and respond to imported cases.

In February 2012, India reached these milestones, and the country was removed from the list of polio-endemic countries. This achievement marked a significant milestone for eradication efforts.

Prevention and treatment

However, polio continues to spread in some developing countries. Contributing factors include natural factors such as a high degree of humidity and circumstances associated with extreme poverty, including a lack of access to safe drinking water, sanitation systems, and health care providers.

In April 2013 world leaders gathered at the Global Vaccine Summit and declared the intention to eradicate polio by 2018. On April 25, 2013, at the summit, Canada announced a commitment of $250 million between 2013 and 2018 to support the Global Polio Eradication Initiative in implementing strategies and programs to eradicate polio and strengthen health systems, particularly in the three countries where polio remains a persistent problem: Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan.

Led by the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, certain objectives must be met to accomplish the goal of eradicating polio by 2018:

  • interrupt the transmission of wild poliovirus;
  • achieve certification of global polio eradication; and
  • contribute to the development of health systems and the strengthening of routine immunization and surveillance for communicable diseases.

Achieving this goal will mark the second time in history that a disease has been wiped out: the first one was smallpox.

Canada's role

Canada supports the fight against polio in several critical areas, including sub-Saharan Africa, and Afghanistan and the Afghan-Pakistan-border region. Canada's key international development partnerships in the fight against polio include:

  • The Global Polio Eradication Initiative is a public-private partnership led by national governments in coordination with the World Health Organization, Rotary International, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and UNICEF. This initiative coordinates intensive efforts to eradicate polio worldwide.
  • Rotary International leads the fight against polio in the voluntary sector, and has supported eradication efforts for more than twenty years. PolioPlus, the most ambitious program in that organization's history, supports the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.
  • In September 2012 the Government of Canada, in partnership with Rotary Canada and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, launched a joint initiative called Pennies and More for Polio. Through this initiative, Canada and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will match all funds raised by Rotary Canada for the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. As of April 30, 2013, collectively, this initiative has raised more than $2.27 million for the Global Polio Eradication Initiative through Pennies and More for Polio.
  • Through the Polio Eradication Signature Project in Afghanistan, from 2008 to 2011, Canada worked with the Government of Afghanistan and other international partners, including the World Health Organization and UNICEF. This project resulted in:
    • the immunization of more than seven million children against polio throughout Afghanistan; and
    • a coordinated approach to polio prevention between Afghanistan and Pakistan through the establishment of immunization sites at main border crossings and the synchronization of immunization calendars between the two countries.

Next steps to ensure success

For the Global Polio Eradication Initiative to succeed:

  • all children must be reached and immunized in the remaining three endemic countries and all remaining affected countries; and
  • the operation requires high-level political and financial commitment on the part of countries, provinces, states, and districts.

Canada's support for polio eradication efforts is in line with one of Canada's priority themes for international development: securing the future of children and youth. This effort includes immunization programs and other integrated health activities focusing on children. The fight against polio is also in line with Canada's commitment to improve maternal, newborn and child health.

These efforts are also helping to achieve two Millennium Development Goals (MDGs): reduce child mortality (MDG 4) and combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases (MDG 6).

By eradicating this debilitating disease, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative makes it more possible for children and their families to lead healthy and productive lives, and reduce poverty worldwide.

Consult the International Development Project Browser to find out more about these initiatives and other polio eradication projects.