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WHO declares polio emergency

May 5, 2014

The World Health Organization has declared polio a "public health emergency." Civil war and conflict are thought to have led to the deadly disease's re-emergence in countries where it was believed eradicated.

Indien Gesundheit Kinderlähmung Polio Patient in Delhi
Image: DW/M. Kirshnan

The on Monday that the spread of polio represented a public health emergency after figures indicated that rates of the disease were increasing each year.

Between January and the end of April, there were 68 confirmed cases of polio - the majority in Pakistan - compared with 24 in the same time last year.

The United Nations' health agency also said the disease, which can cause paralysis and is potentially fatal, appeared to have spread across at least three international boundaries during the first four months of the year.

In that period, usually the low season for polio transmission, importations of the virus were detected from Pakistan to Afghanistan, from combat-ravaged Syria to Iraq - and from Cameroon to Equatorial Guinea.

"A coordinated international response is deemed essential to stop the international spread," said WHO Assistant Director General Bruce Aylward.

'Vaccination drive needed'

The WHO has urgently warned Pakistan, Cameroon and Syria to ensure all residents and long term visitors are given polio vaccines before traveling abroad. The same advice was also given to countries where the disease has been reported, but which do not appear to be exporting it, namely, Afghanistan, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Iraq, Nigeria and Somalia.

The fact that the transmission over borders happened in the low season is seen as particularly worrying, with fears the situation could deteriorate in the high season in May. Children under five are particularly susceptible.

In recent years, the threat of polio has risen in Pakistan - where Taliban militants have targeted health workers administering the vaccine - and in Nigeria.

A reemergence in countries such as Syria and Somalia, where civil unrest and war can complicate vaccination efforts, was also highlighted by the WHO.

Emergency status rare

The designation of polio as a public health emergency indicates serious concern on behalf of the agency. The categorization has only been used once before - at the beginning of the H1N1 swine flu epidemic in 2009.

Polio had come close to being beaten as a result of a concerted eradication drive using vaccines over the past 25 years. The fear among doctors is that this work could be undone.

The disease is still only considered to be endemic - maintaining itself naturally within the population with no need for contagion from outside - in three countries: Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan.

Last year, there were only 417 global cases in all, compared with 350,000 cases in 1988. In that year, the disease was still endemic in 125 countries.

rc/se (AP, AFP, Reuters)