Like much of the rest of the world, we thought -- and fervently had hoped -- we had seen the last of polio. Apparently, we were wrong.
Faced with evidence of sudden dramatic spreads of a wild polio virus on three continents, the World Health Organization declared a multinational state of emergency on Monday.
It was a needed step, and it should serve as a clarion call to all nations, even ones such as the United States that are not located on those continents.
After all, it was just two years ago that world health officials thought that the disease was all but eradicated. Now, at least 10 countries are thought to be affected by a wild new polio virus.
Immediate action to contain the spread of this virus is critical.
Health officials believe that Pakistan, Syria and Cameroon were at the heart of allowing this virus to spread. In addition to those countries, Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Somalia have registered outbreaks.
While the disease usually strikes children under 6, a committee of the WHO said that "increasing evidence that adult travelers contributed" to the most recent spread.
The health organization said that there were only 223 cases of polio registered worldwide in 2012 after a long, steady decline. But that number nearly doubled to 417 in 2013. What’s more, 60 percent of the new cases appeared in countries that were thought to be polio free for years.
Looking at the affected countries, it is clear that wars big and small are substantial contributors to the problem. Such conflicts often cause interruption of vital vaccination campaigns.
Yes, contrary to reports in some quarters, vaccinations do work against poliomyelitis. Not only do vaccines work, they are essential because polio is highly infectious. What’s worse, the virus can be carried without displaying symptoms, which allows for accidental infection of hundreds of others.
But vaccination is not always easy, especially for nations in turmoil.
For example, Dr. Bruce Aylward, who is in charge of vaccination efforts for the WHO, told The New York Times that in Pakistan, Taliban militants repeatedly attacked health workers administering vaccines, especially after American forces located and killed Osama bin Laden in 2011, using information gathered in part by a doctor under the guise of a vaccination campaign.
Polio remains a preventable disease with immunization, but once it is contracted there is no cure, and it manifests as terrible forms of paralysis and can even cause death. That is why the WHO announcement is so important. Critics of the organization say that it should have done something sooner, which may be true. Be that as it may, this emergency is something the world must now take seriously.
~Contra Costa (Calif.) Times