With tireless vaccination campaigns in the most remote areas, the world community has almost achieved the final eradication of polio. Europe has been polio-free for 20 years. But now there are setbacks in some regions of the world, mainly due to the corona pandemic.
Melik Minas was not even three years old when he contracted the insidious poliovirus in Turkey in 1998. The boy was unvaccinated and contracted polio. Melik, who later recovered somewhat, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), became famous for being the last official case of polio in Europe. A few years later, on June 21, 2002, WHO declared its European region of more than 50 countries polio-free.
The 20th anniversary is a milestone, but not everyone is looking rosy. The goal of making polio history after smallpox was eradicated in 1980 has so far not been achieved. Ever new conflicts, the displacement of populations, migration and the corona pandemic are likely to have pushed it further into the future.
Routine vaccinations, which include polio, were interrupted in many countries during the pandemic years, says Oliver Rosenbauer from the WHO's polio eradication initiative in Geneva. "In some regions, children are now at higher risk from infections like polio," he says. "This also increases the risk of polio spreading internationally again." Polio - or polio - is a contagious, infectious disease that can cause paralysis and death. Permanent damage can remain, especially in small children.
The highly contagious virus is often spread through contaminated water. There is no complete cure yet. According to the WHO, around ten billion doses of vaccine have been administered in the past ten years. According to them, without this effort, 6.5 million children would have contracted polio.
The risk of new spread in currently polio-free countries is real. Until recently, wild poliovirus circulated virtually only in Pakistan and Afghanistan, with a handful of cases each. But this year, cases have been reported in Malawi for the first time since 2016, and in Mozambique, believed to have been imported from Pakistan. Africa was only declared polio-free in 2020.
There are also isolated cases in the WHO European region, which stretches from Turkmenistan to Israel. According to the Robert Koch Institute, there were three cases in Germany in the early 1990s, but they did not spread. In addition to the wild virus, there are also individual cases in which a weakened disease is triggered by a live vaccine. According to the WHO, there were fewer than 800 cases worldwide in ten years. In Germany, the Standing Committee on Vaccination (STIKO) has therefore been recommending the use of inactivated polio vaccines since 1998.
The key to polio eradication is ending the wild virus, says Rosenbauer. If it no longer circulates, vaccinations are no longer necessary and the risk of vaccine polio is eliminated. "Such vaccination types only develop where there is not enough vaccination," he says. According to the extermination initiative, this happened recently in Israel and Ukraine, before the war.
The WHO is working flat out on a final strategy. By 2026, 370 million children in 50 countries will be vaccinated every year. This requires 4.8 billion dollars, which should come together in October at a donor conference in Berlin. The federal government is one of the largest donors to the Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI). This is intended to reach every last child in the most remote region and ban polio from the face of the earth once and for all.