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

Syrian Rebels Poised for Anti-Russia Collaboration

Forty-one insurgent groups issue joint statement vowing retaliation for Russian air offensives More

Political Maneuver Revives Export-Import Bank's Chances

Parliamentary tactic gets bill out of committee, but it faces opposition in the Senate More

Beijing Warns US on S. China Sea Patrols

Warning follows news reports Thursday that US military is planning to sail warships close to artificial islands Beijing has been aggressively building More

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.
House Republicans in Chaos as Speaker Favorite Withdrawsi
Jim Malone
October 09, 2015 12:32 AM
The Republican widely expected to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives shocked his colleagues Thursday by announcing he was withdrawing his candidacy. The decision by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy means the race to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner is now wide open. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Video House Republicans in Chaos as Speaker Favorite Withdraws

The Republican widely expected to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives shocked his colleagues Thursday by announcing he was withdrawing his candidacy. The decision by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy means the race to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner is now wide open. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Video German, US Officials Investigate Volkswagen

German officials have taken steps to restore some of the reputation their car industry has lost after a recent Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal. Authorities have searched Volkswagen headquarters and other locations in an effort to identify the culprits in the creation of software that helps cheat on emission tests. Meanwhile, a group of lawmakers in Washington held a hearing to get to the bottom of the cheating strategy that was first discovered in the United States. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Why Are Gun Laws So Hard for Congress to Tackle?

Since taking office, President Barack Obama has spoken out or issued statements about 15 mass shootings. The most recent shooting, in which 10 people were killed at a community college, sparked outrage over the nation's gun laws. But changing those laws isn't as easy as many think. VOA's Carolyn Presutti reports.

Video Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugees

Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Iraqi-Kurdish Teachers Vow to Continue Protest

Sixteen people were injured when police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse teachers and other public employees who took to the streets in Iraq’s Kurdish north, demanding their salaries from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). VOA’s Dilshad Anwar, in Sulaimaniya, caught up with protesting teachers who say they have not been paid for three months. Parke Brewer narrates his report.

Video Syrian Village Community Faces Double Displacement in Lebanon

Driven by war from their village in southwestern Syria, a group of families found shelter in Lebanon, resettling en masse in a half-built university to form one of the biggest settlements of its kind in Lebanon. Three years later, however, they now face being kicked out and dispersed in a country where finding shelter as a refugee can be especially tough. John Owens has more for VOA from the city of Saida, also known as Sidon.

Video Bat Colony: Unusual Tourist Attraction in Texas

The action hero Batman might be everyone’s favorite but real bats hardly get that kind of adoration. Put more than a million of these creatures of the night together and it only evokes images of horror. Sarah Zaman visited the largest urban bat colony in North America to see just how well bat and human get along with each other.

Video Device Shows Promise of Stopping Motion Sickness

It’s a sickening feeling — the dizziness, nausea and vomiting that comes with motion sickness. But a device now being developed could stop motion sickness by suppressing certain signals in the brain. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.

Video Making a Mint

While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Activists Decry Lagos Slum Demolition

Acting on a court order, authorities in Nigeria demolished a slum last month in the commercial capital, Lagos. But human rights activists say the order was illegal, and the community was razed to make way for a government housing project. Chris Stein has more from Lagos.

Video TPP Agreed, But Faces Stiff Opposition

President Barack Obama promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Tuesday, one day after 12 Pacific Rim nations reached the free trade deal in Atlanta. The controversial pact that would involve about 40 percent of global trade still needs approval by lawmakers in respective countries. Zlatica Hoke reports Obama is facing strong opposition to the deal, including from members of his own party.

Video Ukranian Artist Portrays Putin in an Unusual Way

As Russian President Vladimir Putin was addressing the United Nations in New York last month, he was also being featured in an art exhibition in Washington. It’s not a flattering exhibit. It’s done by a Ukrainian artist in a unique medium. And its creator says it’s not only a work of art - it’s a political statement. VOA’s Tetiana Kharchenko has more.

VOA Blogs