The World Health Organization (WHO) has issued a statement saying that polio once again poses a significant threat to global health. Here’s what you need to know about how this has happened and what is being done about it.
1. When Did WHO Declare This and What Does a State of Emergency Mean?
The WHO Emergency Committee was convened on April 29, and the affected states participating in these talks included Afghanistan, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Israel, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia and the Syrian Arab Republic. While polio is currently only endemic in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria, surrounding states are now thought to be under threat.
The last time WHO declared a state of emergency of this nature it was in 2009 as a rallying call to tackle what scientists said could be the global pandemic H1N1 or bird-flu virus. WHO does this only when it believes there is well-supported evidence that an infectious disease, while perhaps currently confined to only a handful of states, has risen in prevalence sufficiently so as to potentially cause an international health crisis. In polio’s case, this would mean causing a reemergence in states that have managed, in terms of all significant measures, to eradicate the disease.
2. What is Polio and Why is Polio So Bad?
Polio is a highly infections disease that mainly affects children under the age of five. Polio is insidious in that many people who become infected with polio do not in fact display any symptoms at all, but are carriers for the disease and, should their feces find its way into contaminating food or the water supply, often due to poor waste management and overall bad levels of sanitation, others can quickly become infected. For children, the results can be especially dire.
Polio can cause fever (and all the associated dangers of a fever) as well as severe fatigue, headaches and vomiting, as well as pain in the limbs. It can also cause permanent paralysis.
3. What is the Current Situation with Polio?
There are nations where polio has been entirely eradicated, most recently in India. However, the international spread of polio between nations continues to be a concern. WHO estimates based on global reporting that, by the end of 2013, 60 percent of all polio cases were in fact caused due to travel between nations, and that more and more adult travelers are contributing to the disease’s spread. Even during the 2014 low transmission time (i.e. the early months of this year), WHO has become increasingly concerned about how the wild poliovirus has appeared to spread from three out of the 10 aforementioned states into other states, for instance from Pakistan and into Afghanistan.
4. Why is This Particularly a Problem Now?
War appears to be a main enabler for the spread of polio at this time. That’s because in states that have been polio free, the immunization program that has kept people healthy for so long has now been either seriously hampered or suspended entirely. War and its aftermath also means that the states are hampered when it comes to even mobilizing a response. Governments taking a lax approach to combating polio will, obviously, always be a concern and Pakistan in particular has been charged with not putting enough emphasis on preventing polio being spread.
5. What Does WHO Want Global Authorities to Do About Polio?
WHO wants affected states to immediately implement what are known as polio eradication strategies. These include but aren’t limited to using an oral poliovirus vaccine to supplement the traditional delivery method, increased tracking of the virus and also putting in place mechanisms for future consistent and routine immunizations. This sounds simple but is likely to hinge on global intervention in terms of both monetary funds and aid work.
To put this crisis in perspective, worldwide figures for polio infection show that in 1988 there were 350,000 cases of polio. After concerted efforts like the polio management strategies outlined above, that figure had fallen to just 417 in 2013. However, in just the first five months of 2014, 74 cases of polio have reportedly been identified, 59 of them in Pakistan.
So, for once this “state of emergency” is not scaremongering. There is a very real danger that polio could begin to gain ground in war-affected countries and further hamper our efforts to help populations who are in the midst of such crises. That doesn’t mean we’re under any immediate danger of a polio resurgence in places like the UK and the United States, but it does mean we need to take this problem seriously.
It also serves to illustrate, yet again, the malignancy of anti-vaccine propaganda and how it is important to combat the spread of disinformation at home so as to ensure that our so-called herd immunity stays strong.
Photo credit: Thinkstock.
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