The World Health Organization (WHO) has issued an emergency report detailing the recent spread of wild poliovirus. The statement, released Monday, May 5th, is the result of a two day meeting of the International Health Regulations Emergency Committee, held in Geneva, Switzerland April 28th and 29th. Over half of the tweets released by WHO’s Twitter site on the day the report was released referenced the report and the efforts to stop the spread of polio.
Thought to be nearly eradicated around the globe, poliovirus has been recently spreading across the Middle East and into Africa. In 1988, an international consortium titled the Global Polio Eradication Initiative was formed; since its inception, cases of polio have decreased more than 99%, from over 350,000 cases in 1988 to 406 in 2013. This represents the largest international public health effort to date. Unfortunately, three countries were never able to fully eradicate the disease: Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria. Now, four new countries, Syria, Cameroon, Iraq, and Equatorial Guinea, have seen spikes in cases so far this year. The spread is more troubling to experts because this time of year is seen as the “low transmission” period, meaning the “high transmission” monsoon season at the end of the summer months could spell disaster for eradication efforts.
WHO has been chastised in the past for its relatively lax behavior in enforcing travel restrictions on countries with communicable disease outbreaks. This new declaration represents a much stronger stance from the WHO. “This is a fundamental shift in the program,” said Dr. Bruce Aylward, WHO’s chief of polio eradication. “This is the countries of the world signaling that they will no longer tolerate the spread of the virus from the countries that aren’t finished.”
WHO though still has no enforcement power. While the organization is suggesting the aforementioned countries, as well as Ethiopia and Israel, encourage their citizens to get vaccinated before they travel, the WHO has no legal authority to impose it’s suggestions. Normally, polio can be prevented by several rounds of vaccination, which can be given via shot or orally using an eyedropper. The developed world has an infrastructure in place to ensure all citizens receive vaccinations, but developing countries rely heavily on WHO and other international organizations for vaccine delivery and administration.
Vaccine delivery to many of these countries is marred by issues. In Pakistan, Taliban forces kill either individuals attempting to receive vaccines or the vaccine teams themselves. Before the civil war, Syria had a 90% vaccination rate, but now over 300,000 children, who are most vulnerable to the disease, are trapped in areas deemed unreachable by vaccination teams. Even in areas where the vaccines can be freely given, politics over who gets paid and who owns the transportation to shuttle the teams and supplies can delay or prevent vaccine delivery.
Edward Marks is a PhD student at the University of Delaware. His research involves the healing of myocardial tissue after major cardiac events using nanomedicine techniques, with the goal of pushing any advancement directly into the clinic. Edward received his BS from Rutgers University and Masters from the University of Delaware.