Health experts see risk of major polio resurgence
Geneva, October 12, 2006 (Reuters) - More than 250,000 people could contract polio every year if Nigeria, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan fail to eradicate the crippling virus, public health experts said on Thursday.
Steve Cochi, chair of an advisory panel that oversees international efforts to eliminate the disease, faulted the last four countries where polio is endemic for failing to ensure children receive the cheap oral vaccine that stops its spread.
"Polio continues in these few areas ... because authorities are persistently failing to reach every child," Cochi, a senior adviser on global immunizations at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ( CDC), told a news briefing.
"The world will face upwards of a quarter of a million cases of polio every single year if we do not finish the job now in these four remaining polio-endemic countries. It will not remain at the levels of disease burden that we are at today."
Largely as a result of two billion children being immunized in house-to-house vaccination programs, fewer than 2,000 people contracted the disease last year, compared to 350,000 annually when the eradication drive started in 1988.
The World Health Organization (WHO), U.N. Children's Fund ( UNICEF), Rotary International and the Atlanta-based CDC missed their goal of halting the spread of polio by the end of 2005.
While rates in Afghanistan and Pakistan have begun to wane, sporadic efforts in India and an almost year-long interruption in vaccination in northern Nigeria from mid-2003 caused a spike in infections that spread to more than 20 countries.
Cochi said a failure to knock out polio in the countries that have never stopped its transmission could cause "a huge resurgence" in the disease which can cause life-long paralysis in children.
"The political leaders in the remaining few districts and states where polio continues to circulate cannot be allowed to shirk their responsibilities," he said.
In addition to increased immunization in problem areas, health experts said other countries might benefit from travel rules similar to those introduced this year by Saudi Arabia.
Children under the age of 15 from polio-affected countries, and Muslim pilgrims of all ages from Nigeria, must show proof of polio vaccination to receive an entry visa, Yagob Yousef Al-Mazrou of Saudi Arabia's health ministry said.
Those entrants also get a dose of the vaccine upon arrival.
David Heymann, the WHO's acting assistant director-general for communicable diseases, said no new deadline would be set for the eradication of the disease.
"We are at the end stages of the program. There is no need to retarget, what is necessary now is to finish," he said.