The spread of polio to countries previously considered free of the crippling disease is a global health emergency, the World Health Organization said, as the virus once driven to the brink of extinction mounts a comeback.
Pakistan, Cameroon and Syria pose the greatest risk of exporting the virus to other countries, and should ensure that residents have been vaccinated before they travel, the Geneva-based WHO said in a statement today after a meeting of its emergency committee. It’s only the second time the United Nations agency has declared a public health emergency of international concern, after the 2009 influenza pandemic.
Polio has resurged as military conflicts from Sudan to Pakistan disrupt vaccination campaigns, giving the virus a toehold. 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 74 cases this year, including 59 in Pakistan, during what is usually polio’s “low season,” the WHO said.
The disease’s spread, if unchecked, “could result in failure to eradicate globally one of the world’s most serious, vaccine-preventable diseases,” Bruce Aylward, the WHO’s assistant director general for polio, emergencies and country collaboration, told reporters in Geneva today. “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.”
Under the recommendations adopted by WHO Director General Margaret Chan today, Pakistan, Cameroon and Syria should declare public health emergencies and ensure travelers are vaccinated and provided with documentation proving their status.
An $11.8 billion eradication campaign backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Rotary International had reduced polio to three countries in which it spreads locally: Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria. In the past six months, the virus has spread to Syria, Iraq, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Israel and Somalia, according to the WHO.
While the number of cases in Afghanistan and Nigeria dropped by more than half last year, figures jumped 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.
“Conflict makes it very difficult for the vaccinators to get to the children who need vaccine,” David Heymann, a professor of infectious diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said in an interview before the WHO’s announcement. “It’s been more difficult to finish than had been hoped.”
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 and GlaxoSmithKline Plc.
Cases of polio, which paralyzed large numbers of people around the globe for generations and crippled the late 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 resurgence of the virus “reminds us that, until it’s eradicated, it’s going to spread internationally and it’s going to find and paralyze susceptible kids,” Aylward said.