News / Health

Study Reveals Chink in Polio Vaccine’s Armor

A boy suffering from polio crawls beside his braces in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, November 29, 2011.
A boy suffering from polio crawls beside his braces in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, November 29, 2011.

A mutated polio virus that slipped through vaccine defenses caused an unusually lethal outbreak in the Republic of Congo in 2010, according to a new study. 

An intensive vaccination campaign was able to stop the virus. 

But the authors say their research shows new and dangerous strains may emerge as polio eradication nears, and high rates of vaccination are the best available protection.

Weaker vaccine

Polio usually paralyzes its victims. It is not typically fatal. But in the Republic of Congo outbreak, nearly half of the 445 people who got sick with the virus died. 

Health workers were especially concerned because about half of the patients remembered having been vaccinated. 

“That made it even more bizarre, because if they had been vaccinated, they shouldn’t be sick,” said virologist Felix Drexler at the University of Bonn.

When Drexler and colleagues in Europe and Africa studied the virus, they found it had some never-before-seen mutations in a critical part of its outer coat. Those mutations were in the place where antibodies that fight the virus would normally attach.

“We thought, ‘Wow, maybe that could affect the ability of the antibodies in human blood to neutralize the virus,’” Drexler said. 

It did. When they tested the virus in Germany against blood samples from people with better-than-average vaccination coverage, they found that 15 to 29 percent of them would not be protected from the mutant strain.

The research is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Virus stopped

The Republic of Congo had been polio free before the outbreak. It took four nationwide immunization drives targeting every man, woman and child to stop the mutated virus. 

Drexler said the effort worked because just about everyone got vaccinated with the most potent form of the vaccine. 

The virus has not been seen since, though Drexler said it’s possible it’s still lurking out there somewhere. And, he added, there may be others that also can evade the vaccine's protection. 

Experts say polio eradication is in its final stages. There have been fewer than 150 cases anywhere in the world this year, and the virus is found regularly in just three countries. 

Good enough?

But, Drexler noted, “The question that the experts are asking is, 'Is the vaccine good enough to enable us to eradicate poliovirus?'”

Virologist Olen Kew with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it is. He was not involved with this study. He noted that the vaccine has eliminated the virus everywhere it has been used.

“What happened in Congo was, it hadn’t been used for quite a long period of time and a susceptible group opened up,” he said. Civil unrest disrupted vaccination campaigns in the 1990s and early 2000s. “And when the virus was introduced, it had devastating effects.”

Kew said the reason the virus was so deadly was because the susceptible group was young adults, not the children who are usually affected. 

“It’s been known for a long time that older age groups, once they get infected, can have more severe disease than younger children,” he said.

Associate Director Walt Orenstein at the Emory Vaccine Center, who was also not involved in the study, said more potent vaccines would be helpful to protect against mutated viruses.

However, he added, “I think the most important message, to me, is, we need to push hard and push fast and terminate transmission as quickly as possible, in which case this becomes irrelevant.”

You May Like

Photogallery Brussels Schools, Metro Reopen Under Heavy Guard

City remains under the highest threat alert level due to what authorities have described as a 'serious and imminent' threat of attack

Video Debt-ridden Refugees Await Onslaught of Lebanese Winter

Aid agencies are attempting to reduce potentially devastating consequences of freezing conditions and snowstorms that killed eight last year, including three Syrian refugees

UN Warns Air Pollution in Asia Pacific Has Rising Cost

Globally some seven million people a year die prematurely due to indoor and outdoor pollution with about 70 per cent of those deaths in region

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: eusebio from: Portugal
August 20, 2014 12:42 PM
Stop Pólio in DRCongo sustainable solutions in the areas of the fight against Pólio

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against ISi
November 24, 2015 3:04 AM
The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs