South Sudan health officials have declared a national health emergency and launched an emergency polio vaccination campaign after three cases of the disease were reported in Northern Bahr al Ghazal and Eastern Equatoria states.
Two girls, aged two and eight, in Aweil South county, Northern Bahr el Ghazal state, and a two-year-old girl in Ikotos county, in Eastern Equatoria, were confirmed as having polio by the Kenya Medical Research Institute in Nairobi on Sept. 26.
Prior to the three cases, South Sudan had been polio-free for about four years, with an outbreak last reported in 2009.
Health ministry undersecretary Makur Matur Koryom said the girls’ health is being monitored closely.
The government has started vaccination campaigns in the regions the girls live in to try to curb the spread of the disease, and will extend the vaccination exercise to the entire country over the next three months, Koryom said.
The head of World Health Organization’s (WHO) Expanded Program on Immunization, Dr Yehia Mostafah, said WHO will work with the South Sudanese government to end polio in the country, and hailed progress made so far in running mass vaccination campaigns in South Sudan.
"In the last four years we improved our routine vaccination system from only 16 percent coverage to more than 54 percent, which is huge, just taking into consideration the situation we are in, in South Sudan, all the austerity measures, all the problems, insecurity, flooding, everything that we are suffering," he said.
Polio is a highly infectious disease caused by a virus that attacks a person's nervous system and quickly causes paralysis. It can be spread through tainted water and other drinks, uncooked food, and by coming into contact with faeces contaminated with the virus.
Medical authorities in South Sudan have been on high alert for cases of the disease after an outbreak in Somalia in May quickly spread to Kenya and Ethiopia.
A global effort to eradicate polio, which was launched in 1988, has been hugely successful, with vaccination campaigns helping to reduce the number of cases worldwide by more than 99 percent and saving more than 10 million children from paralysis.
When the eradication campaign was launched 25 years ago, polio was endemic in 125 countries and about 350,000 people, most of them young children, were paralyzed by the disease every year.
Today, polio remains endemic in just three countries—Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan—and fewer than 250 cases were reported in 2012, down from 650 cases in 2011.
Experts believe that polio can be wiped out by 2018, which would make it only the second disease to be eradicated after smallpox.