WHO declares spread of polio a public health emergency

Anupama Dathan from ONE’s global health team offers a personal take to the recent polio outbreak. 

Cool storage container for the pneumococcal, pentavalent, polio, and measles vaccines

My parents grew up in India in the 1960s, a time when polio was spreading rapidly across the country. The disease was paralyzing hundreds of children every day, and the vaccine to prevent polio wasn’t yet widely accessible. Everyone was fearful of the disease and that could be why my mom couldn’t bring herself to believe me when I told her last December that India was about to be declared polio-free. And it’s hard to blame her reaction.

The progress made against polio – both in India and around the world – has been so substantial. By early 2013, the number of global polio cases had dropped 99 percent since 1988, the year when polio eradication became a global goal. Just three countries still have endemic polio, and the world has set a goal of eradicating the disease by 2018.

But this progress is now severely threatened. Between January and April of this year – a period that’s considered the low-transmission season for polio – the virus has been crossing borders. It’s already spread from Pakistan to Afghanistan, from Syria to Iraq, and from Cameroon to Equatorial Guinea. These kinds of outbreaks are an expected risk in global eradication, but this time there’s a high risk of further international spread. Many of the countries that border these infected ones are struggling with complex humanitarian emergencies and other major challenges.

That’s why this week, the WHO declared this spread of polio a public health emergency.

The world is now entering the high transmission season for polio, and we need a coordinated, international plan to stop the disease from spreading further. The WHO has recommended a variety of actions, including:

- Ensuring all residents and long-term visitors receive an additional dose of oral polio vaccine between 4 weeks and 12 months before each international journey

– Ensuring travelers are provided with a record of their polio vaccination to serve as proof of vaccination

– Ensuring the head of state or government officially declares that the interruption of polio transmission is a national public health emergency

There is no denying that this latest threat is serious, but as the Gates Foundation’s Chris Elias reminds us this week, polio eradication has always been extremely difficult. It requires vaccinating millions of children in remote areas and in some of the world’s most dangerous areas.

It requires overcoming opposition to the polio vaccine and finding ways to stem outbreaks in previously polio-free areas. Through determination and targeted efforts, the polio eradication campaign has met these challenges and made incredible levels of progress. While these most recent transmissions of polio are certainly serious setbacks, they too can be overcome.

To learn more about the disease and how you can protect yourself, check out the Global Polio Eradication Initiative’s resources here.