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Polio could be wiped out as early as next year. That's the prediction from people working on the global effort to end the disease. If polio transmission is stopped entirely, it would be the second human disease to be eliminated after smallpox. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports on the challenges of getting the job done.
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Polio transmission is now only occurring in one part of the world - the restive border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan. And even there, it's at an extremely low level. There've been only 51 cases reported in 2015 compared to hundreds of cases last year and thousands a few decades ago. And significantly, last month, the World Health Organization celebrated Africa for the first time ever going a full year without a single case of polio.
KATE O'BRIEN: This is a really major step forward in the effort to eradicate polio from the world.
BEAUBIEN: Kate O'Brien is a professor at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins, and she also works at the World Health Organization as an adviser on global immunization policy. Up until this year, Nigeria had been the big stumbling block in efforts to rid Africa of polio. Even as it was wiped out elsewhere, polio continued to paralyze kids in Africa's most populous nation.
O'BRIEN: The fact that Nigeria is now a year without wild polio is absolutely massive.
BEAUBIEN: The big challenge now, she says, is stopping it in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Immunization campaigns there have been incredibly difficult after the Taliban banned polio vaccination, even attacking and gunning down vaccinators in the street. O'Brien says the final barriers to wiping out this disease are not medical. They're political.
O'BRIEN: We have the tools to get this job done, and the evidence of that is that every single country around the world except for two countries has gotten rid of this virus.
BEAUBIEN: And until those countries actually stop polio transmission, the multibillion-dollar global eradication effort is going to have to continue everywhere.
O'BRIEN: This is a virus that is fighting for its life. It is going to find people in places that are not vaccinated. It's going to find a way to move, and it's going to find those places that are vulnerable. So until we eradicate it, everybody still has to remain vaccinated in the United States and around the world, and that is going to have to continue until we get to the point of eradication.
PETER CROWLEY: Definitely, we can see light at the end of the tunnel, but the tunnel is a difficult and dangerous place.
BEAUBIEN: Peter Crowley used to be the head of UNICEF's operations in Afghanistan. He now leads the charity's global efforts against polio.
CROWLEY: We're down to some very, very difficult operating environments, whether in the northwest of Pakistan or in the south and east of Afghanistan, which is where we see cases continuing to occur.
BEAUBIEN: But he says there's more cooperation now from local tribal leaders in those areas, and he's confident eradication is possible.
CROWLEY: It's not going to be easy, but we're aiming to try and halt all transmission of wild polio virus next year.
BEAUBIEN: Public health officials have been declaring that polio is on the verge of being wiped out ever since Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin came up with vaccines against it in the 1950s. At that point, the world was tallying hundreds of thousands of cases each year. Now the numbers are down to just a few dozen, and polio's demise does appear closer than ever. Jason Beaubien, NPR News.
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