The scourge of polio is declared wiped out in the Western Hemisphere

September 30, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- Polio, the dreaded scourge that killed or paralyzed millions of children worldwide and caused near-hysteria among U.S. parents during the first half of the century, has been eradicated from the Western Hemisphere, the World Health Organization declared yesterday.

This achievement "should be a source of pride to all of us, and it shows what can be done when everybody works together for a common cause for the benefit of mankind," said Dr. Carlyle Guerra de Macedo, director of the Pan American Health Organization, or PAHO, which is the Western Hemisphere office of WHO.

"Let us now hope that the example set in the Americas is followed by the rest of the world, so that after the year 2000 no child will ever again fall victim to this dreadful disease," he added, speaking at a news conference.

PAHO officials attributed the success to an aggressive and widespread $540 million immunization campaign launched in the region in 1985.

The last documented case of polio in the Americas was recorded in 1991 in Pichanaki, a village in Peru, in a 3-year-old boy. The last case in the United States occurred in 1979, according to PAHO.

But 120,000 cases still occur annually in other parts of the world, most of them "in the poorest and most politically unstable areas," PAHO officials said in a statement.

The disease has largely declined worldwide, with the sole exception being the Eastern Mediterranean region, where a 24 percent increase was reported in 1993, particularly in Pakistan and the Sudan, PAHO said.

China, which reported epidemics of more than 5,000 in 1989 and 1990, has mounted a major immunization program. In 1993, Europe recorded 187 cases, of which 161 occurred in nine of the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union.

Poliomyelitis, or infantile paralysis, is an infectious disease caused by a virus that attacks the central nervous system and can produce paralysis and death by asphyxiation. There are no effective drugs to treat polio.

The disease mostly afflicts young children, although adults also are susceptible. The most famous American stricken was President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who fell ill at the age of 35.

WHO said it would concentrate its efforts next toward the eradication of polio in the rest of the world, as was achieved with smallpox in 1977.

WHO will launch a similar effort against measles, another vaccine-preventable illness that kill 1 million people annually.

Polio eradication programs have left a health infrastructure within the Americas "that will facilitate the struggle against measles," PAHO said.

The organization said it hoped that polio could be completely wiped out by the year 2000. Today, 81 percent of the world's children have received the vaccine, PAHO said.

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