UN agency declares global health emergency to stem potential resurgence of polio

Oral poliovirus vaccine. Photo: WHO

5 May 2014 – The spread of polio in countries where it was once eradicated is an “extraordinary event” and unless an international coordinated response is urgently put in place, the preventable disease will resurge, the United Nations health agency today warned.

Members of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Emergency Committee meeting today in Geneva unanimously agreed that the over-riding priority for all polio-infected countries must be to interrupt wild poliovirus transmission within their borders “as rapidly as possible”. Supplementary immunization campaigns with oral poliovirus vaccine (OPV), virus surveillance, and routine immunization are among the main ways to interrupt transmission.

Cameroon, Pakistan and Syria pose the greatest risk of exporting the virus to other countries and should ensure that all residents and long-term visitors should be vaccinated before traveling and provided with a proof of vaccination, according to a statement from the WHO.

The Committee also identified countries where the wild poliovirus is active but currently not being transmitted to neighbouring countries. That group includes Afghanistan, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Iraq, Israel, Somalia and Nigeria.

“If unchecked, this situation could result in failure to eradicate globally one of the world’s most serious vaccine preventable diseases,” the Committee said, announcing their unanimous view “that the conditions for a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) have been met.”

In addition to vaccinations, the WHO recommended that the highest levels of Government officially declare that interrupting the spread of polio is a national public health emergency.

The current situation “stands in stark contrast to the near-cessation of international spread of wild poliovirus from January 2012 through the 2013 low transmission”, the Committee Members said in a statement after their meeting, adding that there is increasing evidence that adult travelers have contributed to the spread.

Polio usually strikes children under the age of five. The virus enters the body through the mouth and multiplies in the intestines attacking the nervous system, potentially causing total paralysis in a matter of hours.

Initial symptoms are fever, fatigue, headache, vomiting, stiffness in the neck and pain in the limbs. One in 200 infections leads to irreversible paralysis and among those paralyzed, five to 10 per cent die when their breathing muscles become immobilized, according to UN figures.

Noting the rising trend of infections in parts of Asia, Africa and the Middle East, the UN and its partners re-launched massive vaccination campaigns last month in Syria, Iraq and Egypt, aiming to reach 22 million children.


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