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WHO Calls Polio's Spread a Global Emergency

Police stand guard as a polio worker waits to give polio vaccine drops to children at a street in Peshawar, the capital of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, Pakistan, March 30, 2014.

Police stand guard as a polio worker waits to give polio vaccine drops to children at a street in Peshawar, the capital of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, Pakistan, March 30, 2014.

Alarmed by polio outbreaks in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, the World Health Organization is calling for a coordinated international response to stop the spread of the crippling disease.

The agency, citing a public health emergency, on Monday released a set of recommendations. These included travel restrictions for Pakistan, Cameroon and Syria, countries currently exporting the wild virus that causes the infection.

WHO's assistant director general, Bruce Aylward, said the situation was particularly serious because the new polio infections have occurred between January and April, traditionally the disease's low transmission season.

The disease usually affects children 5 and younger and is spread by water infected with fecal matter.

The number of confirmed polio cases reached 68 last month, compared with 24 the previous year, the Associated Press reported.

A WHO emergency committee said Camaroon, Pakistan and Syria should ensure that all residents and long-term visitors get immunized against polio before traveling abroad. Travelers should carry a certificate or other evidence they've been immunized, the agency advised.

Pakistan, which has the world's highest incidence of the disease, is moving quickly to make polio vaccines mandatory for all those planning to travel out of the country, its national minister of health told told VOA.

“We were already considering, along with our provincial governments, that we should make sure that all Pakistanis, before leaving Pakistan, should have these polio drops," Saira Afzal Tarar said.

Polio also is endemic in Afghanistan and Nigeria. Its re-emergence in countries where it previously had been controlled -- Camaroon, Equitorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Iraq, Kenya and Somalia -- led the organization to its recommendations.

Taliban hampered immunizations

Because of a Taliban ban on vaccinations, and the organization's deadly attacks on anti-polio health teams, national eradication efforts in Pakistan have suffered critical setbacks.

Tarar said those areas inaccessible to health workers are the main reservoirs of the polio virus. A heavy Taliban presence has all but denied access to the tribal area of North Waziristan.

Pakistan’s prime minister has asked the country’s military to help protect polio vaccination workers in the insurgency-plagued northwest.

Although not legally binding, the WHO recommendations carry a lot of weight, said the organization's acting representative in Pakistan, Nima Saeed Abid.

WHO expects many of the countries will follow its recommendations, "but it depends on the member state to implement," said Abid. "I do not think member states would ignore these recommendations.”

The travel measures are expected to remain in place until six months have passed without polio virus exportations.

VOA's Sharon Behn reported from Islamabad and Lisa Schlein reported from Geneva.
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    Sharon Behn

    Sharon Behn is a foreign correspondent working out of Voice of America’s headquarters in Washington D.C  Her current beat focuses on political, security and humanitarian developments in Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Follow Sharon on Twitter and on Facebook.

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