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Emergency plan launched as fight to eradicate polio sits on 'tipping point'

GENEVA -- The international group tasked with ridding the world of polio said on Thursday it was shifting to “emergency mode” as the fight enters its final stretch.

Polio remains endemic in just three countries — Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan — after India was taken off the list in February.

The Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) says accelerating efforts now could wipe out polio for good: if not, its spread to other countries remains a constant risk.

If stamped out, polio would be the second infectious disease affecting humans after smallpox to be completely eradicated.

The GPEI, spearheaded by the World Health Organization and UNICEF among others, says failure could lead within a decade to 200,000 children being paralyzed each year.

Aside from the health benefits, it also estimated savings of US$40-50 billion by 2035 by taking into account cash spent on campaigns and treatments and gains in productivity.

“Polio eradication is at a tipping point between success and failure,” WHO chief Margaret Chan said in a statement.

Polio is a highly infectious disease which affects mainly the under-fives and can cause paralysis in a matter of hours. Some cases can be fatal.

The GPEI's Emergency Action Plan aims to boost vaccination coverage in the three remaining endemic countries, but says it has a 50 percent funding gap of US$945 million (750 million euros) through the end of 2013.

The group hopes a resolution being considered by health ministers this week in Geneva declaring polio eradication “a programmatic emergency for global public health” will mobilize the political commitment and resources needed to make up the shortfall.

Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan saw an unexpected rise in cases in 2011, according to experts, who said conflict, political change and poor infrastructure all make vaccination programs difficult.

Outbreaks in recent years in China, spread from Pakistan, and in West Africa, transmitted from Nigeria, highlight the continued threat of resurgence.

“The polio map looks better than it ever has before, (but) at the same time the program is a little bit on the edge because the funding support needed to get that final mile isn't really there,” said Jay Wenger of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which supports the GPEI.

India was taken off a list of polio endemic countries by the WHO on Feb. 25 after more than a year passed with no fresh cases.

Worldwide, polio cases have dropped by over 99 percent since 1988, from an estimated 350,000 infections to 1,352 reported in 2010.

“We know polio can be eradicated, and our success in India proves it,” said Kalyan Banerjee, president of GPEI partner Rotary International.

UNICEF executive director Anthony Lake said the group's efforts were at risk until every child was fully immunized against polio.

“We have come so far in the battle against this crippling disease. We can now make history — or later be condemned by history for failing,” said Lake.

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