The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

World Health Organization declares spread of polio an international public health emergency

  • Print

LONDON - For the first time ever, the World Health Organization on Monday declared the spread of polio an international public health emergency that could grow in the next few months and unravel the nearly three-decade effort to eradicate the crippling disease.

The agency described current polio outbreaks across at least 10 countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East as an "extraordinary event" that required a co-ordinated international response. It identified Pakistan, Syria and Cameroon as having allowed the virus to spread beyond their borders, and recommended that those three governments require citizens to obtain a certificate proving they have been vaccinated for polio before travelling abroad.

"Until it is eradicated, polio will continue to spread internationally, find and paralyze susceptible kids," Dr. Bruce Aylward, who leads WHO's polio efforts, said during a press briefing.

Critics, however, questioned whether Monday's announcement would make much of a difference, given the limits faced by governments confronting not only polio but armed insurrection and widespread poverty.

"What happens when you continue whipping a horse to go ever faster, no matter how rapidly he is already running?" said Dr. Donald A. Henderson, who led the WHO's initiative to get rid of smallpox, the only human disease ever to have been eradicated.

The WHO has never before issued an international alert on polio, a disease that usually strikes children under 5 and is most often spread through infected water. There is no specific cure, but several vaccines exist.

Experts are particularly concerned that polio is re-emerging in countries previously free of the disease, such as Syria, Somalia and Iraq, where civil war or unrest now complicates efforts to contain the virus. It is happening during the traditionally low season for the spread of polio, leaving experts worried that cases could spike as the weather becomes warmer and wetter in the coming months across the northern hemisphere.

The vast majority of new cases are in Pakistan, a country which an independent monitoring board set up by the WHO has called "a powder keg that could ignite widespread polio transmission."

Dozens of polio workers have been killed over the last two years in Pakistan, where militants accuse them of spying for the U.S. government. Those suspicions stem at least partly from the disclosure that the CIA used a Pakistani doctor to uncover Osama bin Laden's hideout by trying to get blood samples from his family under the guise of a hepatitis vaccination program. U.S. commandos killed the al-Qaida leader in May 2011 in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad.

At the end of last month, there were 68 confirmed polio cases worldwide, compared with just 24 at the same time last year. In 2013, polio reappeared in Syria, sparking fears the civil war there could ignite a wider outbreak as refugees flee to other countries across the region. The virus has also been identified in the sewage system in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, although no cases have been spotted.

In February, the WHO found that polio had also returned to Iraq, where it spread from neighbouring Syria. It is also circulating in Afghanistan (where it spread from Pakistan) and Equatorial Guinea (from neighbouring Cameroon) as well as Nigeria, Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya.

Officials also worry countries torn by conflict, such as Ukraine, Sudan and the Central African Republic, are rife for polio reinfection.

Some critics say it may even be time to accept that polio may not be eradicated, since the deadline to wipe out the disease has already been missed several times. The ongoing effort costs about $1 billion a year.

"For the past two years, problems have steadily, and now rapidly mounted," Henderson said in an email. "It is becoming apparent that there are too many problems (for the polio eradication effort) to overcome, however many resources are assigned."

Henderson and others have suggested the extraordinary efforts needed for polio eradication might be better spent on other health programs, including routine vaccination programs for childhood diseases. But he conceded that transitioning to a control program would be difficult. "If not eradication, how does one accomplish a 'soft landing' which could sustain the global program on immunization?" Henderson said.

Aylward said the WHO and its partners, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, aren't yet considering pushing back their latest deadline to eradicate polio by 2018.

CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden said the reemergence and spread of polio out of Pakistan, Cameroon and Syria pose "a serious threat to our ability to eradicate polio."

"Conflicts in many areas where polio is circulating are hampering efforts to vaccinate but success remains within reach," Frieden said.

Still, the independent board monitoring the progress being made on polio has called for overhauling the program.

"Few involved in (polio eradication) can give a clear account of how decisions are made," concluded a recent report by the group. "If a billion-dollar global business missed its major goal several times, it would be inconceivable that it would not revisit and revise its organizational and decision-making structure."

___

AP Medical Writer Mike Stobbe contributed to this report from New York.

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

Drew Willy says team couldn't get anything going

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • A goose comes in for a landing Thursday morning through heavy fog on near Hyw 59 just north of Winnipeg - Day 17 Of Joe Bryksa’s 30 day goose challenge - May 24, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
  • STDUP ‚Äì Beautiful West End  begins it's summer of bloom with boulevard s, front yards  and even back lane gardens ,  coming alive with flowers , daisies and poppies  dress up a backyard lane on Camden St near Wolseley Ave  KEN GIGLIOTTI  / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS  /  June 26 2012

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

Should political leaders be highly visible on the frontlines of flood fights and other natural disasters?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google