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Eminent NZ scientist supports global plan to end polio

Eminent NZ scientist joins global declaration in support of plan to end polio

Kiwi Professor joins over 400 experts from 75 countries who cite time-limited opportunity and endorse comprehensive new eradication strategy

Dr David Murdoch, Head of the Department of Pathology at University of Otago, Christchurch, joined hundreds of scientists, doctors and other experts from around the world who launched the Scientific Declaration on Polio Eradication today, declaring that an end to the paralyzing disease is achievable and endorsing a comprehensive new strategy to secure a lasting polio-free world by 2018. The declaration’s launch coincides with the 58th anniversary of the announcement of Jonas Salk’s revolutionary vaccine.

The more than 400 signatories to the declaration urged governments, international organizations and civil society to do their part to seize the historic opportunity to end polio and protect the world's most vulnerable children and future generations from this debilitating but preventable disease. The declaration calls for full funding and implementation of the Polio Eradication and Endgame Strategic Plan 2013-2018, developed by the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI). With polio cases at an all-time low and the disease remaining endemic in just three countries, the GPEI estimates that ending the disease entirely by 2018 can be achieved for a cost of approximately $5.5 billion.

“The goal with polio eradication is very clear and achievable,” said Dr Murdoch. “That’s not the case with every infectious disease and that’s not the case with every disease that we have a vaccine for. We have a disease that is able to be eradicated. Small pox has been the single example so far. Polio eradication needs a concerted effort; it needs a lot of factors to be coordinated.”

The declaration – housed online by Emory University at – notes that polio vaccines have already protected hundreds of millions of children from the disease and eliminated one of the three types of wild poliovirus, proving that eradication is scientifically feasible. It calls on the international community to meet the goals in the GPEI plan for delivering polio vaccines to more children at risk, particularly in Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan, where polio remains endemic and emergency action plans launched over the past year have resulted in significant improvements in vaccine coverage.

“We really shouldn't be taking our foot of the gas,” said Dr Murdoch. “It’s important to maintain the momentum so those last ones are eradicated. The tendency of course is to see the numbers dwindling and think that the disease is going to go away but that won’t happen. Over the last decade there have been plenty of examples where polio has appeared again. That is what can happen if the momentum slows.”

The declaration emphasizes that achieving polio eradication requires efforts interrelated with strengthening routine immunization, a new focus of the GPEI plan. As the last cases of polio are contained, high levels of routine immunization will be critical. At the same time, resources and learning from polio eradication efforts can be used to strengthen coverage of other life-saving vaccines, including for children who have never been reached with any health interventions before.

The scientists and experts signing the declaration called on the international community to take steps outlined in the GPEI plan to address challenges that have posed obstacles to polio eradication in the past, including improving immunization campaign quality to reach missed children and eliminating rare polio cases originated by the oral polio vaccine. While previous polio efforts have sought to interrupt wild virus transmission and then address vaccine-derived virus, the new GPEI plan addresses both simultaneously with a timetable to phase out use of oral polio vaccines and introduce inactivated polio vaccines. The declaration urges vaccine manufacturers to provide an affordable supply of the different vaccines required for eradication, and calls on scientists to continue researching new and better tools.

“I would like the government to be aware of this issue and support it on a global level,” said Dr Murdoch. “New Zealand will probably just play a small part but we needs to be pushing for global eradication. It’s important that this is seen as a global problem and we’re part of a global community and without a global effort, eradication is not going to happen. If we don't play a part then low income countries bear the brunt of it.”

In light of recent attacks on health workers in some endemic countries, the declaration stresses the need to protect polio vaccination teams as they do their work. The GPEI plan includes a series of risk-mitigation strategies for insecure areas, including deepening engagement with community and religious leaders.

The scientists and experts signing the declaration hail from 75 countries and include Nobel laureates, vaccine and infectious disease experts, public health school deans, pediatricians and other health authorities. More than 40 leading universities and schools of public health and medicine are promoting the declaration on their websites, including Aga Khan University, the Harvard School of Public Health, the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, Al Azhar University (Egypt), University of Cape Town, Redeemer's University (Nigeria) and Christian Medical College Vellore (India).

The declaration notes that the world has a unique window of opportunity to eradicate polio. Only 223 new cases due to wild poliovirus were recorded in 2012, an historic low and a more than 99 percent decrease from the estimated 350,000 cases in 1988. Just 16 new cases have been reported so far in 2013 (as of 9 April). India, long-regarded as the most difficult place to eliminate polio, has not recorded a case in more than two years.

“If we don't make the effort on polio eradication, a lot of decades of work will be wasted and we’ll find ourselves back where we were before,” said Dr. Murdoch. “I would hope that the declaration is noticed at a highest level. We need people people in government and key stake holders to take notice. We need polio eradication to stay on the agenda.”

For additional information about the Scientific Declaration or to view a full list of signatories, please visit the Emory Vaccine Center Website. The Polio Eradication and Endgame Strategic Plan 2013-2018 is available online from the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. The plan will be formally shared with the immunization community at the Global Vaccine Summit taking place 24-25 April 2013 in Abu Dhabi.


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