For information only - not an official document.
Press Release No:  UNIS/SOC/340
Release Date:   15 June 2000
Europe Enters the Last Stages of the Global Polio-free Certification Process

 After 19 months free from reported cases of poliomyelitis, the WHO European Region faces the daunting task of becoming fully certified as a polio-free region. Why daunting? Dr. George Oblapenko, WHO Polio Eradication Coordinator for Europe, explains that “it is not just a matter of remaining free of reported polio for 3 years. Nor is it just a matter of achieving a highly sensitive level of surveillance, also for at least three years. The ultimate task is containment of all specimens of wild poliovirus currently in laboratories in the Region”.

In order to address this issue, a meeting is being held in Vienna, Austria, 19-21 June 2000, which will present a regional plan for laboratory containment of wild polioviruses. This is sure to be a complex issue as laboratory containment requires the participation of all laboratories in each country of the Region. This means that certain university laboratories, for example, outside the control of the Ministry of Health will have to be willing to meet certain standards of containment and also the possibility of one day destroying wild poliovirus or possibly infectious specimens in their possession. Strategies for implementing the plan is a key discussion point.

More than 100 representatives from 40 countries are attending the meeting where the initial documentation supporting Regional certification from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Republic of Moldova, Romania and The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia are also being reviewed.

Another major issue to be considered is ongoing, sensitive surveillance of poliomyelitis in the countries of the Region which have not had a case of poliomyelitis disease in years, if not decades. Due to population movements into and in the WHO European Region, the fear of importation of the wild poliovirus must be taken seriously. Pakistan, for example, had 507 cases of polio reported in 1999 and India had 2810 cases, and continuing poliovirus circulation puts their neighbours, the United Kingdom and other European States at high risk. Poliovirus can be re-imported into a country in a matter of hours. 

The continued threat of importation of polio will continue past the end of 2000—the original target date for global eradication set in 1988—since up to 20 countries are likely to still have poliovirus circulating at the end of the year 2000, WHO announced at the World Health Assembly on 15 May 2000.  This includes large areas in Africa and the Indian subcontinent.  However, Dr. Bjorn Melgaard, Director of the WHO Department of Vaccines and Biologicals, noted that “with the intensive efforts underway in the highest risk countries to vaccinate every single child, the Polio Eradication Initiative remains on track to certify the world polio-free in the year 2005”.  More than 190 countries and territories will have interrupted poliovirus transmission by the end of the year 2000.

Only when the entire world is certified to be free of poliovirus circulation can the long-term goal of ending vaccinations against poliovirus be considered.  The extra costs for intensive immunization and surveillance efforts are easily compensated by the long-term savings from no longer needing to immunize or pay for treatment of patients.  In this way, the world will save USD 1.5 billion per year.  Dr. Serguei Litvinov, Special Advisor for the Regional Director, WHO Regional Office for Europe said “in the European Region alone, the savings will be approximately USD 300 million per year when vaccination can be stopped”. 

For more information,  contact:

Franklin Apfel or Annette Andkjær 
Communication and Public Affairs
WHO Regional Office for Europe
Scherfigsvej 8, DK-2100, Copenhagen Ø, Denmark
Tel.: +45 39 17 13 36 or +45 39 17 13 44
Fax: +45 39 17 18 80
E-mail: or
Press releases on World Wide Web site:

Dr George Oblapenko
WHO Polio Coordinator for Europe
Tel.: +45 39 17 12 94
WHO Regional Office for Europe
Scherfigsvej 8, DK-2100, Copenhagen Ø, Denmark

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