On May 5, 2014, the World Health Organization issued a global health emergency stating that the polio virus, which was once on the brink of extinction, is mounting a comeback. The organization confirmed that polio has spread to countries that were once considered polio free, and if the disease isn’t completely eradicated, it could become a worldwide epidemic again.
Polio, a highly contagious, crippling and sometimes fatal disease, reached epidemic proportions in the early 1900s. Relentless vaccination efforts helped eliminate the polio virus from the Western Hemisphere by 1994. In 2012, thanks to an $11.8 billion campaign funded by the Bill and Miranda Gates Foundation and Rotary International, the disease was contained in three countries—Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan. During that year, a record low of 223 cases of the polio virus were reported.
The short-lived win was thwarted when Hafiz Gul Bahadur, the leader of a Pakistani Taliban fraction in North Waziristan, responded to a US drone attack by banning polio vaccinations in the Taliban-dominated tribal area. This, combined with rumors that the vaccinations cause infertility, failed attempts by the US Central Intelligence Agency to use a fake vaccination program to capture Osama bin Laden, and the murders of numerous vaccinators in Pakistan, brought eradication campaigns to a halt and resulted in a reported 416 cases of the polio virus in eight countries in 2013.
Since the beginning of 2014, 74 cases of polio have been reported globally, compared to 26 cases of the polio virus during the same time last year. Reported cases in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq have all been linked to Pakistan, and a strain of the virus detected in Israel matched the strain plaguing Pakistan according to the WHO. Over the past six months, the disease has also spread to Cameroon, Ethiopia, Somalia and Equatorial Guinea.
The World Health Organization stated that largest risk of the polio virus spreading to other countries comes from people traveling from Cameroon, Pakistan and Syria. The alarming situation prompted Martha Chan, the Director General of the WHO, to recommend that all three countries declare a public health emergency, ensure that travelers are properly vaccinated and have proper documentation before traveling outside of their countries.
Airports in six Pakistani cities already featured stocked vaccination booths for travelers to India, Saudi Arabia and Georgia—countries that require Pakistani visitors to have vaccinations before their arrival—but the supply wasn’t large enough to vaccinate all international travelers. As of May 12, 2014, Pakistani officials opened vaccination booths along the Afghanistan border, health officials have ordered 5,000 extra doses of the vaccine and the Pakistan army is scheduled to accompany polio vaccinators throughout the country. Since the WHO announcement, 168 people have been vaccinated in Islamabad’s main hospital, and government officials are optimistic that polio can be eradicated from Pakistan.
The threat of the polio virus becoming an epidemic has travelers worldwide worried. By checking with your country’s embassy, reviewing public health notices and obtaining proper vaccinations before you travel internationally, you can protect yourself from the polio virus and other infectious diseases.
(Photo courtesy of praisaeng / freedigitalphotos.net)