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Last Updated

27 May 2003

Source: New York Times, May 27, 2003


Death Throes of a Crippler

On Oct. 26, 1977, in Somalia, a young man came down with a rash. It was smallpox. But the fellow, who survived, was remarkable, for he had the planet's last case of naturally occurring smallpox. Eleven years after smallpox became the first disease to be wiped off the face of the earth, health ministers from around the world voted to make polio the second. That goal is very close. But the campaign is short of money. Another $275 million is needed to finish the job by 2005 a sum that would be repaid manyfold if polio vanished.

On May 13, a coalition of groups that fight polio Unicef, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization and Rotary International announced a smart change in strategy, focusing money and expertise more tightly on the few areas where polio is still endemic. But there is not enough money even for this leaner fight.

In the late 1980's, most countries had polio cases, and 350,000 people contracted the disease each year. By last year there were fewer than 2,000 cases, all in seven countries. A vast majority occur in two Indian states and in Nigeria and Pakistan. But recent financial constraints caused cutbacks in special vaccination days in those areas. The 1,919 cases reported last year were up from 329 in 2001.

Hence the change in strategy. Countries will continue to give children polio vaccines as part of their routine immunization package, but 80 nations where polio is not found will no longer have supplementary vaccination days. The resources this saves will be concentrated on the seven polio-endemic nations and six others considered still at risk.

In an age when viruses circle the globe, no unvaccinated person is safe until polio is eradicated everywhere. Of the $275 million required by 2005, $33 million is needed urgently. Wealthy nations meeting in France in June should make this a priority. The world has been spared 40 million smallpox deaths since 1977. Polio's demise will bring huge benefits as well. It makes sense to spend the money to end the disease as fast as possible.