In a region of the world that has such a large portion of the world’s population (25 percent), health issues in Southeast Asia can reflect many general health concerns. Recent disease scares like the Avian Flu, Swine Flu and the SARS outbreak all had origins and outbreaks in Southeast Asia. Thus, the recent declaration by the World Health Organization (WHO) that polio has been eliminated in the region can be considered a great victory in the fight against global poverty.
The declaration was the culmination of an intensive effort that involved 2.4 million volunteers in India, which had accounted for half the world’s polio cases in 2009. Despite that prevalence just a few years ago, the country has had no reported cases of polio since 2011.
The project cost a billion dollars, largely funded by the Indian government. Former U.S. ambassador John E. Lange said about the announcement, “This is… a proof of concept that polio can be eradicated in some of the most difficult places to work in.” Thanks to the encouragement of the WHO and the collaboration by the Indian government, Southeast Asia looks to have set a model for future regions to follow.
With the official polio-free announcement for Southeast Asia, it can be said that 80 percent of the world’s population lives in polio-free regions. The only two world regions that are still plagued by polio are the Eastern Mediterranean and Africa. Those regions will need time as there is significant resistance in those regions.
Pakistan in particular has been an area resistant to polio eradication. While it would seem that the elimination of polio is a movement that anyone could get behind, the movement has become closely associated to United States intelligence efforts in the region. The Taliban in Pakistan has acted out against polio workers and citizens helping the polio effort. Closely following the news of eradication in Southeast Asia were reports of the kidnapping and murder of a polio worker in Pakistan. With entrenched resistance groups there and in Nigeria, the further eradication of polio might prove difficult going forward.
Also, the Syrian civil war will keep health worries going in that region. Syria had one of the best health care systems in the region prior to the crisis, but the massive displacement of the Syrian population helps spread these dangerous diseases. A spokesman from the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees said, “The current polio outbreak in Syria… is arguably the most challenging outbreak in the history of polio eradication.”
Despite the difficulties in the remaining areas, the eradication of polio in Southeast Asia proves that no matter the circumstances in the present, a dedicated effort can make real progress. The work that the Indian government and WHO have done in the last five years could prove to be successful in other regions. Organizations like The Borgen Project encourage this type of work to continue, and for the United States to step up their support in regions that are dealing with these difficulties.