For only the second time in the its history, the World Health Organisation is calling for a global effort to contain polio outbreaks in Asia, the Middle East and Africa. In a statement this week the Organisation said the spread of the poliovirus constitutes an international health emergency.
“If unchecked, this situation could result in failure to eradicate globally one of the world’s most serious vaccine preventable diseases. It was the unanimous view of the committee that the conditions for a public health emergency of international concern have been met,” WHO said in a statement.
Polio is endemic in three countries, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, while it has been effectively eradicated elsewhere through vaccination programmes started in 1988. However, it is now spreading across borders due to military conflicts, and the breakdown of immunisation schemes.
WHO lists Afghanistan, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Iraq, Israel, Nigeria, and Somalia as countries at risk of exporting polio in 2014. For people travelling abroad from infected countries, WHO recommends carrying a vaccination certificate to prevent problems as other countries try to limit their risk.
In 2013 WHO recorded 417 cases of polio worldwide. For 2014, 68 cases had already been recorded by 30 April. At the end of last year 60 percent of polio cases were the result of international spread of wild poliovirus, with evidence pointing to adult travellers being the cause of this spread.
In the first half of 2014, known as the low-transmission season, polio has already been spread across international borders notably – Pakistan to Afghanistan, Cameroon to Equatorial Guinea and Syria to Iraq. WHO is calling for a greater international effort to combat these outbreaks and prevent new ones as the start of high-transmission season begins in May/June.
The polio virus typically affects children under five and can cause paralysis and death. It is usually spread via contaminated water, and around 95 percent of cases are asymptomatic, allowing the virus to spread among a community undetected. One in 200 infections leads to irreversible paralysis and five to ten percent of patients die when their respiratory muscles become immobilised. While there is no cure for polio, infection can be prevented by taking the vaccination.
Image by UNICEF Sverige on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)