Australia’s commitment to the global eradication of polio

The Department of Health has commissioned the CSIRO to conduct the 2021 Australian Facilities Survey: Management of Polioviruses and Potentially Infectious Materials (PIMs). This survey supports Australia’s commitment to the Global Action Plan III for Poliovirus Containment (GAPIII), as part of the World Health Organisation’s Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI).  This work is supported by Australia’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Paul Kelly.

The survey is being sent to every facility in Australia that could potentially be holding samples that meet the criteria of being polio potentially infectious materials (PIMs). The completion of this survey is essential for Australia to meet its commitment and is part of the final steps towards the complete eradication of the poliovirus globally.

What is polio?

polio virus

Polio is an infectious disease caused by one of three related wild polioviruses: poliovirus types 1, 2 and 3.

Polio is an infectious disease caused by one of three related wild polioviruses: poliovirus types 1, 2 and 3. The virus enters the body through the mouth and then multiplies in the gut. In most cases, polio causes relatively mild flu-like symptoms. However, the poliovirus can also enter the central nervous system, and this can cause a much more serious form of the disease. As the poliovirus multiples within the central nervous system, it can destroy the nerve cells that control muscles, which can ultimately lead to paralysis. It can also attack the respiratory system, which can lead to death.

Polio is also highly contagious – and infected individuals can continue to shed the virus into the environment (and infect others) for weeks after being infected. Polio can infect people of any age but is most common in children under 5. In the early 1900s, polio was among the most feared diseases in many industrialised countries and was responsible for paralysing hundreds of thousands of children a year. The introduction of polio vaccines in the 1950s and 1960s meant that polio was virtually eliminated as a public health issue in these countries, but it remains a health challenge in some developing countries.

Steps towards eradicating polio

In 1988 the World Health Assembly, which governs the World Health Organisation, adopted the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) – a global effort to eradicate the poliovirus.

Unlike many other infectious diseases, the complete eradication of polio is possible because humans are the only host for the polioviruses (no other animals or insects can carry them), polioviruses can only survive for a very short time outside a human host (at temperatures above -20ºC) and an effective vaccine is available that provides lifelong immunity.

The Global Polio Eradication Initiative has taken a multi-faceted approach – including mass vaccination campaigns and rapid responses to any potential or confirmed polio cases. The initiative has enjoyed considerable success; Type 2 wild poliovirus was declared eradicated in September 2015, with the last virus detected in India in 1999. Type 3 wild poliovirus was last detected in November 2012 and was declared eradicated in October 2019. Only Type 1 wild poliovirus remains. This means that global eradication of the poliovirus is now very close.

The final steps towards eradication

The most significant remaining task for the global initiative is for each nation worldwide to conduct a comprehensive survey to identify any potentially infectious materials (PIMs) for poliovirus that may exist – and to ensure they are either destroyed or stored securely in an appropriately certified facility.

PIMs pose a threat to the global eradication of poliovirus because they may inadvertently contribute to a breach in containment. As a result, all countries have been asked to complete a national inventory of PIMs as part of the eradication effort. National inventory surveys are one of the final steps in the global eradication of poliovirus – the polio endgame strategy.

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