It is, says the World Health Organization, “an extraordinary event.” Polio is spreading to a degree that constitutes a public health emergency.
The global drive to wipe out the virus had driven the number of polio cases down from 300,000 in the late 1980s to just 417 cases last year. The World Health Organization has set a goal of wiping out polio by 2018.
But this year, polio has been reported in 10 countries, and there are fears the number could rise. Bruce Aylward, the head of WHO’s polio program, says if the international spread isn’t halted, the virus could easily re-establish itself, particularly in conflict-torn countries like the Central African Republic and South Sudan. The unrest makes it difficult to sustain vaccination efforts, and poor sanitary conditions cause the disease to spread.
Although polio mainly afflicts children under 6, a WHO emergency committee has stated that adults are to blame. The committee noted that there is “increasing evidence that adult travelers [from Pakistan, Syria and Cameroon] contributed” to the polio surge.
As a result, the World Health Organization has taken the unusual step of ordering these three countries to vaccinate any resident who travels internationally. In addition, WHO is calling for the three countries to continue efforts to inoculate their children. The mandate was issued by the director-general’s Emergency Committee on International Health Regulations.
Aylward says this focus on travelers is critical to stem the virus, which causes paralysis and can be fatal
Photo: A health worker administers polio vaccine drops to a child at Karachi International Airport in Pakistan. The country’s government has set up immunization points at airports to help stop its polio outbreak from spreading abroad. (Rizwan Tabassum/AFP/Getty Images)