Statistics released today by the Initiative show that since it was launched in 1988, there has been a drop from 350,000 annual cases of polio to no more than 3,500 last year. The success comes largely thanks to accelerated eradication activities, including increased rounds of National Immunization Days and the use of a house-to-house vaccine delivery strategy enabling teams to find and protect more children. Last year a record 550 million children under five years were immunized during intensified National Immunization Days in 82 countries. In India, 152 million children were vaccinated in three days, while a synchronized effort across West and Central Africa reached 76 million children in 17 countries. The partners behind the Initiative hailed the progress, which keeps the campaign on track for a world certified polio-free by 2005, but they warned that the biggest challenges lie ahead, namely accessing all children, closing a $400 million funding gap, and maintaining political commitment in the face of a disappearing disease. “Victory over the poliovirus is within sight,” said Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO). “We must now close in on the remaining strongholds of the disease and use all possible resources to extinguish polio.” She asked that all concerned remain focused on achieving “this historical milestone in international public health.”Carol Bellamy, the Executive Director of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said it would now be crucial to vaccinate children that had been inaccessible because of war, isolation and lack of infrastructure “It’s essential that warring parties and international mediators give priority to ceasefires that allow us to get polio vaccine to these children,” she said, adding, “children should be seen as zones of peace.”The Initiative is spearheaded by WHO, Rotary International, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and UNICEF.Polio still circulates in 20 countries: Afghanistan, Angola, Bangladesh, Benin, the Central African Republic, Chad, Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Nepal, Niger, Nigeria, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, Somalia and the Sudan.