Polio outbreaks a public health emergency: WHO
Published Monday, May 5, 2014 7:33AM EDT
Last Updated Monday, May 5, 2014 8:51PM EDT
The World Health Organization is calling the spread of polio in 2014 an “extraordinary event” and is urging several countries to make serious efforts to contain and eliminate the virus within their borders.
In a statement released Monday, the WHO says 10 countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East should declare the transmission of poliovirus to be a “national public health emergency.”
The organization says Pakistan, Cameroon and Syria should ensure all residents and those visiting for more than four weeks get vaccinated against the virus. Afghanistan, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Iraq, Israel, Nigeria and Somalia should take similar action, encouraging its residents and visitors to seek immunization as well, says the group.
Though the Americas have been polio-free since 1994, for many, the disease is more than just a set of statistics from distant countries. Ottawa resident Eileen Lavigne has been living with the effects of polio since she was 12 years old after contracting the virus in the 1950s. Her scars are a reminder of the once-rampant disease’s painful consequences.
“It killed any nerves that were still surviving in my left arm,” she said. “I don't have the full use of my left arm and it’s made for a lot of struggles.”
Microbiologist Jason Tetro says polio tends to spread in countries where vaccination efforts are interrupted by war and other kinds of political and social strife. He likens the virus to a stubborn weed.
“I think the best way to explain it is to imagine that the human population is like a garden. If you take care of it and you treat it well and you vaccinate it well, then you’re not going to have any weeds,” Tetro said in an interview on CTV News Channel. “Polio is like that weed that just seems to crop up whenever you’re not taking care of anything.”
Though the virus can be transmitted between people of any age, symptoms in adults are usually mild. Young children, on the other hand, can suffer severe effects from infection ranging from paralysis to limb deformity to fatal respiratory complications.
“It’s very, very tragic,” says Tetro.
“For the children, you’re almost feeling helpless, and you just hope that they can find a way to get past that disease.”
Though there is no cure for polio, preventative vaccines developed in the 1950s have drastically reduced the number of infections worldwide. There were an estimated 350,000 cases reported in 1988, down to 406 cases just 25 years later in 2013.
The 68 reported cases in 2014, however, is nearly triple the 24 cases reported by this time last year.
The WHO’s online fact sheet states that “as long as a single child remains infected, children in all countries are at risk of contracting polio.”
And without adequate response to outbreaks, they warn of even more devastating results.
“Failure to eradicate polio from these last remaining strongholds,” the organization says, “could result in as many as 200,000 new cases every year, within 10 years, all over the world.”
With a report by CTV’s medical correspondent Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip