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Polio is on the verge of being wiped off the face of the earth. The count last year just 223 cases around the world and all of those occurred in just three countries. The World Health Organization is pushing an ambitious new plan to stop global polio transmission over the next two years and to eradicate the virus by 2018.
If the effort is successful, NPR's Jason Beaubien reports, polio would be just the second disease in human history, after smallpox, to be eliminated by medical science.
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Polio eradication efforts have been going on for decades, but global health officials say never before have they been this close to stomping out the potentially devastating virus.
HAMID JAFARI: 2012 was a year where the lowest number of polio cases were reported in the world in the fewest districts around the world.
BEAUBIEN: Dr. Hamid Jafari is the director of Global Polio Eradication at the World Health Organization in Geneva. As part of what's called the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, Dr. Jafari has just unveiled a new plan to wipe out polio over the next six years. The $5.5 billion program aims to stop polio transmission, phase out vaccination campaigns and finally secure polio vaccine stockpiles in case the virus somehow manages to reemerge.
JAFARI: This plan is a comprehensive closeout plan for polio eradication. And the most important risk for this plan is that if it is not financed upfront.
BEAUBIEN: He says previous attempts to wipe out polio have stumbled because they lacked global coordination or adequate funding. The polio vaccine is very simple to administer. A few drops into a child's mouth can protect him or her from the potentially devastating paralysis. In the 1950s, polio was spread all around the globe. Terrified parents in the United States wouldn't allow their children to go swimming in the late summer out of fear that they'd catch the incurable condition.
Slowly, polio has been eliminated from one part of the world after another. Now, it only continues to spread in isolated parts of Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The WHO, UNICEF and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, among others, have been pouring resources into attacking polio in these three countries. Even though polio appears to be backed into a corner, Jafari says it still has the potential to spread.
JAFARI: Even as recently as 2011, we had an outbreak in China as a result of importation from Pakistan that killed many adults and that outbreak earlier this year, the Suez sampling in Cairo detected a polio virus that originated in parts of Pakistan.
BEAUBIEN: The parts of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria where polio remains a problem are also areas torn by violence. As recently as February of this year, nine female polio workers were gunned down in the northern Nigerian city of Kano. Apoorva Mallya, who works on vaccine delivery programs for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, says these incidents are unfortunate, but he points out that polio has been eliminated in other places during times of conflict.
APOORVA MALLYA: There are specific places like Somalia, Sudan, El Salvador, it's during active conflict, polio was stopped in those countries.
BEAUBIEN: He says what's really impressive is that India hasn't reported a new case of wild polio in more than two years. Mallya says the final polio endgame plan incorporates many of the techniques and tools that were used in India to finish off the virus. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Washington.
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