Experts seeks to combat infectious diseases Reaching the Last Mile conference in Abu Dhabi will discuss ways to combat polio and guinea worm disease

Abu Dhabi: Only 13 cases of polio have been reported globally this year, and the world is now in the last mile towards eradicating the infectious viral disease, a senior health official has said.

“There were 350,000 cases of polio in 1988. [In just 30 years], this number has crashed to 11, and all these cases were among one community living in territories in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is a phenomenal achievement,” Dr Maha Barakat, director-general of the Abu Dhabi Department of Health, told Gulf News on Tuesday.

“In fact, His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and Deputy Supre Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, personally donated $205 million (Dh753 million) to offer polio vaccinations, and it is this kind of effort and commitment that is needed to combat any infectious disease,” she added.

To discuss the strides made against infectious diseases like polio, and look at ways to overcome the challenges, more than 200 government officials, philanthropists, activists, medical professionals and social workers will meet at the Reaching the Last Mile conference in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday.

Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist, Bill Gates, is also expected to address the audience in his role as the co-founder of the philanthropic Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The eradication of polio, which is caused by a virus, is high on the meeting’s agenda. Of the three known strains of the virus, only one remains, and experts have earmarked 2018 as a possible date of global eradication.

The UAE has itself contributed more than 200 million doses of vaccine to remote areas in Pakistan and Afghanistan since 2014, and the 2013 Global Vaccine Summit held in Abu Dhabi saw $4 billion (Dh14.69 billion) being pledged towards eradication efforts.

A number of neglected tropical diseases will also be discussed, including guinea worm disease. These parasitic worms are still endemic to certain African countries, and about 20 cases have been reported this year (2017) in Chad and Ethiopia, said Dr Dean Sienko, vice-president for health programmes at The Carter Centre. The centre, which was established in 1982 by former US President Jimmy Carter, has taken the lead in combating guinea worm disease.

“The disease, which is transmitted through the consumption of contaminated water, does appear to be in the last mile. A few years ago, cases were still being reported in Mali, Chad, South Sudan and Ethiopia. But none have been reported in South Sudan this year, and in Mali since 2016,” Dr Sienko said.

However, the worms are beginning to infect other mammals, and an outbreak has been reported in about 1,000 dogs in Chad. The worm infects a mammal when larvae or larvae ingested by water fleas are consumed through contaminated water. The worms live in the body until a female worm mates, and this then tries to exit the body through a long process that causes a painful, burning sensation. To relieve the burning, the patient immerses the part of the body in water, and the worm then spreads larvae in the water to continue the cycle.

“To eradicate this disease, we need to encourage people to drink from safe sources while also working with governments to decontaminate water bodies. For a complete eradication, we will also have to control the disease from spreading to animals, and this could take a few years,” Dr Sienko said.

In addition, experts will also look at controlling other infectious diseases, including malaria, river blindness and elephantiasis. 

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