By Charlene Porter
Washington — A top U.S. health official called on the community of nations to devote resources and energy to the final eradication of the paralyzing disease of polio.
“Until the disease is eradicated everywhere, it remains a threat everywhere,” said U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius at a May 17 meeting of the 64th World Health Assembly in Geneva. “We all have a role to play.”
Sebelius, who leads the U.S. delegation to the annual meeting of World Health Organization (WHO) nations, cited significant progress in combating the disease in India and Nigeria, both of which have experienced a 95 percent decline in cases of the disease. Still, the work must go on, she said.
“A number of nations continue to struggle, including Angola, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and most notably Pakistan,” she said. These are countries where polio had previously been eradicated, but has been recently reintroduced. Health officials have failed so far to stop its spread.
Sebelius noted the contributions donor nations have made in the long campaign against polio, and welcomed two new donor nations, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
The disposition of the world’s few remaining stores of smallpox virus is another major issue at the Geneva meeting. The United States is supporting continued retention of virus samples at official repositories in the United States and Russia to allow continuing research in case of a potential reintroduction of the often fatal and disfiguring disease from an unknown source. Smallpox was considered eradicated in 1979, save for these final known stores.
At the same time, Sebelius said the United States is committed to eventual destruction of these virus stores.
“We also believe this assembly should authorize continued research to develop the countermeasures needed to ensure that we’re prepared for a potential smallpox outbreak,” Sebelius said.
A specially appointed advisory committee to WHO has recommended that live samples of the smallpox virus remain in storage to aid in further research on antiviral drugs that can counter the disease and diagnostic tests for the virus.