Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

WHO sounds alarm on spread of polio

By Ashley Hayes, CNN
May 5, 2014 -- Updated 1818 GMT (0218 HKT)
Polio, once a worldwide scourge, is endemic in just three countries now - Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan. Pictured here is Ameena, a Pakistani girl participating in an anti-polio campaign, showing her ink-marked finger after being vaccinated for polio in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, Monday, October 7, 2013. Polio, once a worldwide scourge, is endemic in just three countries now - Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan. Pictured here is Ameena, a Pakistani girl participating in an anti-polio campaign, showing her ink-marked finger after being vaccinated for polio in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, Monday, October 7, 2013.
HIDE CAPTION
Fighting Polio in Pakistan
Fighting Polio in Pakistan
Fighting Polio in Pakistan
Fighting Polio in Pakistan
Fighting Polio in Pakistan
Fighting Polio in Pakistan
Fighting Polio in Pakistan
Fighting Polio in Pakistan
Fighting Polio in Pakistan
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Polio has spread to three countries this year
  • It's typically the low season for transmission of the virus
  • Pakistan, Syria and Cameroon are urged to put measures into place
  • 417 cases of polio were reported worldwide in 2013, WHO says

(CNN) -- The spread of polio constitutes an international public health emergency, the World Health Organization declared Monday.

"If unchecked, this situation could result in failure to eradicate globally one of the world's most serious vaccine preventable diseases," the WHO said in a statement.

At the end of 2013, 60% of polio cases resulted from the international spread of the virus, and "there was increasing evidence that adult travelers contributed to the spread," according to the statement.

Polio mainly affects children under the age of 5, according to the WHO. One in 200 infections leads to irreversible paralysis; 5 to 10% of patients die when their breathing muscles become immobilized. It can only be prevented by vaccination.

Of the 10 countries currently infected with polio, three -- Pakistan, Syria and Cameroon -- have allowed the virus to spread internationally, according to an emergency committee convened by the organization, which met late last month.

Polio has spread from Pakistan to Afghanistan, from Syria to Iraq and from Cameroon to Equatorial Guinea, according to the WHO.

The concern is that the spread comes during the low transmission season for polio, typically January through April, said WHO spokeswoman Christine Feig. This is a "red flag," she said, as "it has been years" since the virus was spread to three countries during low season.

Video games help polio survivor cope
New threat to Syrian refugees
Could she be India's last polio patient?

Polio re-emerged in Syria in October 2013 after a 15-year absence. The ongoing civil war in Syria has hampered immunization rates "due to the severe interruption of public health services and to the conditions in which the people are living," according to a WHO report.

There have been 74 cases of polio so far this year, Dr. Bruce Aylward, WHO assistant director-general for polio, emergencies and country collaboration, said Monday.

Of those, 59 were in Pakistan. No other country has reported more than four cases, and the only country with four was Afghanistan, he said.

The committee's decision to declare an international public health emergency means that Pakistan, Syria and Cameroon are urged to declare national public health emergencies regarding polio and ensure all residents and long-term visitors are vaccinated.

In addition, the WHO said, citizens of those countries traveling internationally should be vaccinated before their departure and carry proof in the form of an International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis.

Meet India's last polio patient

"A coordinated international response is deemed essential to stop this international spread of wild poliovirus and to prevent new spread with the onset of the high transmission season in May/June 2014," according to the organization.

Nations infected with polio, but not spreading the disease internationally now include Afghanistan, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Iraq, Israel, Somalia and Nigeria, the WHO said. Those nations were also encouraged to take similar measures to ensure high levels of vaccination in residents and travelers.

While the recommendations are not legally binding, they are in the context of the International Health Regulations, which are binding on member states, Aylward said.

"These recommendations are not legally binding in the strict sense ... but they do carry substantial weight because, of course, they are in the context of a legally binding international treaty," Aylward said Monday.

No cases of polio have been detected in Israel, but the WHO previously reported the virus was found in sewage samples, as well as in stool samples from children who had been immunized.

In all, 417 cases of polio were reported worldwide in 2013, said Aylward.

Further spread of the virus could put at risk countries that are currently polio-free but are "conflict-torn and fragile" with compromised routine immunization services, the WHO said.

The current situation is "in stark contrast" to the "near-cessation" of the spread of polio from January 2012 through April 2013, according to the statement.

In March, Southeast Asia, including India, was declared polio-free. India, the world's second most populous country, was able to achieve the goal by deploying immunization efforts to reach those most vulnerable, according to UNICEF.

Polio was eradicated in the United States in 1979, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Vaccination campaign against polio, other diseases begins in Mideast

Pakistan grapples with polio fight

India beats the odds, beats polio

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Pakistan Taliban say the school attack was revenge for the killing of children in a military offensive -- but they are being pressed by defections to ISIS.
A group that claims it hacked Sony Pictures has posted a public threat against moviegoers who see Sony's "The Interview."
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
The gunman behind the deadly siege in Sydney this week was not on a security watch list, and Australia's Prime Minister wants to know why.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 0948 GMT (1748 HKT)
Bestselling author Marjorie Liu had set her sights on being a lawyer, but realized it wasn't what she wanted to do for the rest of her life.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
CNN's Matthew Chance looks into an HRW report saying Russia has "legalized discrimination against LGBT people."
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 0212 GMT (1012 HKT)
The Sydney siege has brought home some troubling truths to Australians. They are not immune to what are often called "lone-wolf" terror attacks.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 0012 GMT (0812 HKT)
A social media campaign condemning Islamophobia under the hashtag #illridewithyou has taken off after Sydney hostage siege.
Bill Cosby has kept quiet as sexual assault allegations mounted against him, but his wife, Camille, finally spoke out in defense of her husband.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1144 GMT (1944 HKT)
China-bound AirAsia flight turns back to Bangkok after passenger throws water over crew member.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1026 GMT (1826 HKT)
It takes Nepalese eye doctor, Sanduk Ruit about five minutes to change someone's life.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1054 GMT (1854 HKT)
This epic journey crosses 13,000 kilometers, eight countries over 21 days. Find out where.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1431 GMT (2231 HKT)
Each day, CNN brings you an image capturing a moment to remember, defining the present in our changing world.
Browse through images from CNN teams around the world that you don't always see on news reports.
ADVERTISEMENT