Polio Talks At WHO Board: Between Progress Made, The Final Push And The Role Of Partnership

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On the occasion of the 132nd session of the World Health Organization Executive Board last week, delegations welcomed the efforts made by the international community to eradicate poliomyelitis (polio), but saw room for improvement. As a way forward, they looked to the key role played by WHO partners.

WHO Director General Margaret Chan, along with many delegations, acknowledged the support provided by many partners – from the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), to the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI Alliance), the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Rotary International – and warmly thanked them for their contribution in the fight against polio.

WHO Director General recalled that at the last World Health Assembly in May 2012, polio eradication was declared an emergency. Last week, the WHO secretariat presented a report on the progress made and remaining challenges in the fight against polio. As a result of the global movement to eradicate this disease affecting children under 5 years old, the number of country infected has drastically decreased. Today, only Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria remain affected.

Many delegations also firmly insisted on the final actions required to transform the positive results witnessed into the concrete eradication of polio. For them, the remaining challenges range from the need to address the threat of trans-border spread of the disease to the necessity of a renewed financial and technical support and political commitment of the WHO, its Member States and donors.

Many delegations – like Canada and the United States – expressed their concerns about the trans-border dissemination of polio. The US urged WHO members to implement the WHO’s recommendation on the vaccination of travellers.

Mozambique – speaking on behalf of the WHO Africa region – insisted on the need to mainstream the current mechanisms into polio eradication strategies. China advocated for strengthened surveillance at the borders.  Monaco described the positive impact of vaccination measures taken by Pakistan and Nigeria at their airports and land-crossing borders. Pakistan explained that last year it implemented transit vaccination actions at strategic points like airports and bus stops.

The US insisted on the positive impact that routine vaccination offers and explained that India eradicated polio to a large extent through this tool.

The delegations of Qatar, Panama and Nigeria were among those that highlighted the important role international community plays in the fight against polio and asked for its renewed financial support. For instance, Nigeria said it would welcome a decision of the WHO to have more staff working on the polio issue.

Beyond the need for financial resources, some delegations presented alternative modes of support. Iran asked the WHO and countries able to do so to transfer technologies to countries in need. Brazil shared its example and explained how it has donated vaccines to assist countries in need.

Morocco along with Australia insisted that economic support alone is not enough. They stressed the importance of governments’ political will and commitment.

China insisted on the increased role that the WHO secretariat – through the development of information and data-sharing mechanisms – should play.

Many WHO member states made clear that the participation of partners is crucial in the fight against polio and they insisted that the eradication can only be achieved through partnership.

However, the predominant role of partner institutions can also be seen as potentially in contradiction to the overall aim of WHO’s reform – also discussed by the Board last week- which is to permit the WHO to keep its central coordination role in the global public health domain (IPW, WHO, 18 January 2013). The different allocations of delegations tend to demonstrate that on the polio issue, the WHO acts more like a player than like the coach.


Tiphaine Nunzia Caulier may be reached at info@ip-watch.ch.

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