Alarmed by the spread of polio to several fragile countries, the WHO declared a global health emergency this week for only the second time since regulations permitting it to do so were adopted in 2007. Just two years ago — after a 25-year campaign that vaccinated billions of children — the paralyzing virus was very close to eradication; now health officials say that goal could dissipate if swift action is not taken.
Pakistan, Syria and Cameroon have recently allowed the virus to spread — to Afghanistan, Iraq and Equatorial Guinea, respectively — and should take extraordinary measures to stop it.
The declaration, which effectively imposes travel restrictions on the three countries, represented a newly aggressive stance by the health organization. In the past, it has often bent to pressure from member states demanding no consequences even as epidemics raged inside their borders and sometimes slipped over them.
The emergency was declared though the total number of known cases this year is still relatively small: 68 as of April 30, compared with 24 by that date last year.
Fighting the virus normally includes several rounds of vaccination of all young children in a target country. But, in an unusual step, the agency also said that all residents of Pakistan, Syria and Cameroon, of all ages, should be vaccinated before traveling abroad, and that this restriction should be retained until one year after the last “exported case.”
It also said another seven countries should “encourage” all their would-be travelers to get vaccinated. Those are Afghanistan, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Iraq, Israel, Nigeria and Somalia. Israel has had no confirmed human cases of the disease, but a Pakistan strain of the virus has been detected in sewage in Tel Aviv and elsewhere.
Polio, short for poliomyelitis, is a highly contagious virus spread in feces; although only one case in 200 causes symptoms, the hardest-hit victims can be paralyzed or killed. With so many silent carriers, even one confirmed case is considered a serious outbreak. There is no cure.