MANILA: The World Health Organization (WHO) on Friday declared the Philippines free from polio after no cases of the disease were reported in more than a year.
The country was previously declared polio-free in October 2000, with the last case of poliovirus reported in 1993. But in June 2019, a three-year-old from Lanao del Sur in the southern Philippines was diagnosed with the disease. Three months later, there were 31 polio cases in the country.
In September 2019, the Philippine Department of Health (DoH) announced a polio outbreak and the government, together with WHO, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and other partner organizations scaled nationwide polio campaigns to stop the spread of the virus.
“Today, a day before the Philippines commemorates its Independence Day, we are celebrating freedom from polio,” WHO representative to the Philippines, Dr. Rabindra Abeyasinghe, said in a press briefing on Friday.
Abeyasinghe said that no polio viruses had been detected in the Philippines in the past 16 months, which had led WHO and UNICEF to declare it free from polio.
“This is a major win for public health and is an excellent example of what collective efforts can attain, even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said. Abeyasinghe praised the Philippine authorities for swift mobilization and engagement of both resources and communities.
Despite the challenges to immunization posed by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns, the DoH continued robust polio immunization campaigns.
“The DoH quickly launched decisive and sustained efforts to respond to the outbreak. It was a massive logistical undertaking, and thus began the country’s long arduous journey to protect every child from the crippling and possibly life-threatening disease of polio,” Abeyasinghe said.
More than 30 million doses of oral polio vaccines were administered during 13 immunization and several testing rounds in all three island groups of the Philippines. More than 11 million children were vaccinated, with many receiving multiple doses.
Abeyasinghe acknowledged the “tremendous work” undertaken to close down the polio outbreak and said that the Philippines had emerged as “an inspiration to the world that with leaders caring for children, determination, strong leadership and a focus on a shared goal.”
“Today is a defining moment for the Philippines and a quiet but important milestone for the whole world,” he said. “Until polio is eradicated in every country, no country is safe.”
Polio is a highly contagious and sometimes fatal disease invading the nervous system. In severe cases, it can lead to permanent paralysis or even death. It can be avoided with a vaccine. Children under the age of five are particularly vulnerable.
The disease remains endemic in only two countries — Afghanistan and Pakistan.