Alarm as Pakistan fails to erase polio

May 06, 2014 - 6:56:27 am

GENEVA: Pakistan’s failure to stem the spread of polio triggered global emergency health measures yesterday, with the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommending all residents must show proof of vaccination before they can leave the country.

The emergency measures also apply to Syria and Cameroon, which along with Pakistan are seen as posing the greatest risk of exporting the crippling virus and undermining a UN plan to eradicate it by 2018.

Pakistan is in the spotlight as the only country with endemic polio that saw cases rise last year. Its caseload rose to 93 from 58 in 2012, accounting for more than a fifth of the 417 cases globally in 2013.

The virus has recently spread to Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel and Syria, and has been found in sewage in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and greater Cairo, said WHO assistant director general Bruce Aylward. It also appeared in China two years ago.

“In the majority of these reinfected areas, the viruses circulating actually trace back to Pakistan within the last 12-18 months,” Aylward said.

Pakistan has called an emergency meeting of senior provincial and federal health officials for Wednesday to finalise how to implement the new requirements.

“The best option would be vaccinating the passengers at the airport departure where polio vaccination cards would be issued to the passengers. Human resource and vaccines would have to be worked out for the purpose,” State Minister for Health Services Saira Afzal Tarar said.  “It would be most practical as people often have to fly in emergencies.”

Aylward said Pakistan had done “tremendous” work to restore security in Peshawar after deadly attacks on health workers had impeded the fight against polio. The race to meet a target to eradicate polio by 2018 was still feasible, he said.

“In terms of the 2014 working target to try and stop transmission, from the data presented, clearly Pakistan would be the only country that would be considered ‘off track’ in terms of its ability to meet that deadline,” he added.

WHO chief Margaret Chan declared the resurgence of the disease to be a public health emergency of international concern, the first such designation since a 2009 flu pandemic.

The travel restrictions should stay in place until there is a whole year with no new exports of the disease, or six months if the countries can show they have carried out high quality eradication activities in infected and high risk areas.                   REUTERS

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