Infectious Diseases

Updated 06 May 2014

World faces polio health emergency

The uncontrolled spread of polio from Pakistan led to a meeting of the Emergency Committee of the The World Health Organization (WHO) for the first time since 2009. They have declared the spread of polio is an international public health emergency.

Outbreaks in Asia, Africa and Middle East so far in 2014 constitute an "extraordinary event" needing a co-ordinated "international response", according to the Emergency Committee.

Originally the UN aimed to eradicate polio by the year 2018, which now seems unfeasible.

In particular, Pakistan’s failure to stem the spread of polio has triggered worldwide emergency health measures. In 2013 there were 93 polio cases in Pakistan, up from 58 in the previous year, making it the only country in the world where the number of cases has increased.

Read: Saudi Arabia experiences a sudden jump in MERS cases

10 countries affected

Countries now affected by new polio outbreaks include Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, Syria and China. Most of these cases could be traced back to its source in Pakistan.

The following states have also been affected: Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia and Nigeria. During 2014 polio has already spread from three of these countries, namely Pakistan, Syria and Cameroon.

Read: Suspected cases of polio found in Syria 

Vaccination programmes in many of the above states have been disrupted by political or social unrest. Polio can spread easily from person to person, especially in the unsanitary conditions people in war-torn areas often have to endure. Healthcare is also often poor in countries that are experiencing such disruptions.

Read more: Guinea issues bushmeat warning after Ebola outbreak 

Attacks on vaccination clinics

In 2012 rumours spread that the vaccine contained pork, which Muslims are not allowed to consume, or that it renders people infertile as part of a plot by Western countries to sterilise Muslims according to a Sapa report in 2013.

There were several attacks in remote parts of northern Nigeria in which 10 health workers at vaccination clinics were killed.

Polio, a disease that caused worldwide epidemics in the 1950s in particular, attacks the nervous system and can cause permanent paralysis within hours.

Read: Swine flu is coming to South Africa in 2014 winter

The eradication of polio

If the spread of polio carries on unchecked, the situation could result in failure to eradicate globally one of the world’s most serious vaccine-preventable diseases, according to the WHO.

In 2012, there were just 223 polio infections worldwide, compared to 360 000 in 1988, when the United Nations launched a campaign to eliminate the highly contagious illness that causes paralysis and sometimes death, particularly in young children. Nigeria had 122 cases, Pakistan 58 and Afghanistan 37.

Read: A new world strategy aims to eradicate polio by 2018

WHO emergency recommendations

The WHO recommends that the affected states should declare a national public health emergency and ensure that all long-term visitors and residents receive a dose of the oral poliovirus vaccine (OPV) or the inactivated poliovirus vaccine (IPV) between 4 weeks and 12 months prior to international travel.

The WHO has asked that all residents must show that they have been vaccinated before they will be allowed to leave Pakistan. Other emergency measures include vaccinating travellers at the point of departure, and to make sure that they are given proof of this vaccination.

The WHO recommends that these measures should stay in place until six month have passed without new exportations of the disease, or countries can prove that they have instituted high-quality eradication activities in high-risk areas.

Sources: World Health Organization, Sapa, Health24, The Guardian
Image: Pakistani child receiving polio vaccine, Shutterstock

Read more:
Israel rolls out polio vaccine booster campaign
Why polio is still around
The A-Z of polio


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