By Simeon Bennett
The spread of polio to countries previously considered free of the crippling disease represents a global health emergency, the World Health Organization said.
Pakistan, Cameroon and Syria pose the greatest risk of exporting the virus to other countries, the Geneva-based WHO said in an e-mailed statement today. Those nations should declare national public health emergencies and ensure that residents have been vaccinated before they travel internationally, WHO Director General Margaret Chan said, citing recommendations from an emergency committee.
Polio, driven to the brink of eradication in 2012, has resurged as conflicts from Sudan to Pakistan disrupt vaccination campaigns. The number of cases reached a record low of 223 globally in 2012 and jumped to 417 last year, according to the WHO. There have been 68 this year as of April 30, during what is usually polio’s “low season,” the United Nations health agency said.
“Conflict makes it very difficult for the vaccinators to get to the children who need vaccine,” said David Heymann, a professor of infectious diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, in an interview before the WHO’s announcement. “It’s been more difficult to finish than had been hoped.”
An $11.8 billion eradication campaign backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Rotary International reduced polio to three countries in which it spreads locally: Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria. In the past 12 months, the virus has spread to Syria, Iraq, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, according to the WHO.
While the number of cases in Afghanistan and Nigeria dropped by more than half last year, they jumped by 60 percent in Pakistan, where vaccination efforts have been hampered by rumors the shots cause infertility, and after the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency used a fake vaccination program to help hunt down Osama bin Laden. Twenty polio vaccinators and nine police officers assigned to guard them were killed in Pakistan last year, according to Rotary.
“Any time there’s any reason to doubt vaccines, there are rumors that spread,” Heymann said by phone today.
The polio virus, which is spread through feces, attacks the nervous system and can cause paralysis within hours, and death in as many as 10 percent of its victims. There is no cure. The disease can be prevented by vaccines made by companies including Sanofi (SAN) and GlaxoSmithKline Plc. (GSK)
Cases of polio, which paralyzed generations around the globe and crippled former U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, have dropped 99 percent since 1988, largely thanks to the global vaccination campaign backed by Bill and Melinda Gates.
“The consequences of further international spread are particularly acute today given the large number of polio-free but conflict-torn and fragile states which have severely compromised routine immunization services and are at high risk of re-infection,” the WHO said in today’s statement. (Bloomberg)