WHO: Polio’s alarming comeback is officially a public health emergency

"Extraordinary measures" are needed to stop the spread of the disease throughout conflict-ridden countries

Topics: Polio, WHO, public health, Epidemic, Pakistan, Syria, cameroon, ,

WHO: Polio's alarming comeback is officially a public health emergencyDania Ahmed, 4, receives a polio vaccine at a health center in Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, April 10, 2014.(AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

Polio, one of the world’s most serious, and vaccine preventable, diseases, is on the verge of making a major comeback, the World Health Organization announced Monday, officially declaring the disease’s spread a global health emergency. Once nearly eradicated, the disease is being spread by international travelers, WHO said, while conflict is preventing health workers from reaching and vaccinating children. The New York Times reports:

An emergency committee convened by the organization announced in Geneva that three countries — Pakistan, Syria and Cameroon — had allowed the spread of the virus and should take extraordinary measures to stop it.

…The emergency committee said it was alarmed that polio had spread recently from Pakistan to Afghanistan, Syria to Iraq, and Cameroon to Equatorial Guinea. It said there was “increasing evidence that adult travelers contributed to this spread.”

…The committee’s decision partly reflected the inability to battle polio’s spread in conflict zones where inoculation efforts have been severely impaired. In Syria, where the virus reappeared last year for the first time in more than a decade, health workers have not been able to reach children in areas isolated by the fighting in that country’s civil war.

In Pakistan’s tribal areas, where the government has been battling a Taliban insurgency, health workers seeking to inoculate children have been attacked, and some have been killed.

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Among the “extraordinary measures” recommended by the committee are a renewed effort to inoculate or reinoculate all children in these countries, while requiring that adults carry proof of vaccination in order to travel. Failure to slow the further spread of the disease, it warned, could have serious repercussions. “If the virus is re-introduced into a polio-free area it could become endemic again,” WHO’s Dr. Bruce Aylward told reporters, according to NBC News. “Indeed it could become endemic again in the world.”

Lindsay Abrams

Lindsay Abrams is a staff writer at Salon, reporting on all things sustainable. Follow her on Twitter @readingirl, email labrams@salon.com.

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