The 53-nation WHO European region was declared polio free in 2002, but four countries – Kazakhstan, the Russian Federation, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan – reported 475 laboratory-confirmed cases of wild poliovirus type 1, with 30 deaths, in 2010.
This setback cast doubt on whether Europe was losing ground in its battle against polio but swift action halted the outbreak and the spread of the disease has once again been contained.
However, despite the effective push-back against the resurgence of polio, global efforts to wipe out polio by 2012 are looking increasingly shaky.
The WHO and non-governmental organisations say there are just four countries where polio remains endemic: Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.
Beating polio in these countries is said to be particularly challenging but campaigners say a final push could eradicate the disease if bold, concerted policies are pursued. WHO experts say momentum is gathering behind a strategy which marries the best of science with local political will.
Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe, said that Europe’s success in retaining polio-free status is a credit to the individual and collective actions taken to combat the 2010 outbreak.
“I am also very pleased that the hard work and personal commitments of the presidents, prime ministers and health ministers have produced this success, which shows the importance and value of political commitment and joint action,” she said.
Synchronised additional immunisation activities, often involving nationwide vaccination campaigns, were introduced in affected areas as part of a robust response to the threat.
The expert panel which certified Europe to be free of polio said immunisation coverage and polio surveillance systems are now sufficient in all 53 member states of the WHO European Region.
Progress threatened by funding crisis
Bruce Aylward, WHO Assistant Director-General for Polio, Emergencies and Country Collaboration, welcomed the decision but kept the focus on countries where polio remains endemic.
“We are seeing critical progress in India, the source of last year’s importations into the European Region, and where we have not seen a case in more than six months. Taken together, these two developments constitute strong evidence that polio eradication can be achieved rapidly, with sufficient financing and political will,” he said.
Despite signs of progress in Europe and India, the global effort to eradicate polio continues to face a funding gap of around $590 million through the end of 2012.