Tremendous progress has been made in efforts to wipe out polio around the world. Before a global eradication program began 30 years ago, about 350,000 children became paralyzed from polio each year. The figure dropped to 28 in 2018.
Nevertheless, Helen Rees, chair of the World Health Organization’s emergency committee, said Friday that polio remained an international threat. She said every available health strategy must be used to prevent the wild polio virus from spreading across borders.
"The fear is that we might well see a resurgence, that we could see exportation again and a reversal of all of the work and all of the country global efforts that have gone into trying to eradicate polio,” Rees said. “And we certainly cannot allow that to happen."
Polio remains endemic in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria. Rees said that over the last few months, there has been a worrying exportation of the wild polio virus to and from Pakistan and Afghanistan.
“We have got widespread, positive environmental sampling in Pakistan,” she said. “And in Afghanistan, because of the more difficult situation there in terms of security, we are unable to access probably as many as a million children for vaccination."
Separately, there is good news from the African region. The director of WHO's polio eradication program, Michel Zaffran, noted that the wild polio virus has not been seen in Nigeria since it was last detected more than two years ago.
If this keeps up, he said, the regional certification commission could be able to declare the wild polio virus eradicated from the African region at the end of 2019 or early 2020. He said $4.2 billion would be needed over the next five years to see the last of this disease.
Polio, which has no cure, invades the nervous system and can cause irreversible paralysis within hours. The WHO says polio is transmitted from one person to another through the fecal-oral route, or less frequently by a common vehicle like contaminated food and water. Fever, fatigue, headache, vomiting, stiffness in the neck and limb pain are among polio's symptoms.