The World Health Organization (WHO) took unprecedented action this week by declaring the potential for polio resurgence a global public health emergency.
The WHO’s International Health Regulations (IHR) Emergency Committee met last week and concluded that the international spread of polio to date in 2014 constitutes an ‘extraordinary event’ and a public health risk to other nations for which a coordinated international response is essential.
The current situation stands in stark contrast to the near-cessation of international spread of wild poliovirus from January 2012 through the 2013 low transmission season for this disease (i.e. January to April).
“If unchecked, this situation could result in failure to eradicate globally one of the world’s most serious vaccine preventable diseases,” stated the Emergency Committee.
At the end of 2013, 60% of polio cases were the result of international spread of wild poliovirus, and there was increasing evidence that adult travellers contributed to this spread. During the 2014 low transmission season there has already been international spread of wild poliovirus from 3 of the 10 States that are currently infected: in central Asia (from Pakistan to Afghanistan), in the Middle East (Syrian Arab Republic to Iraq) and in Central Africa (Cameroon to Equatorial Guinea).
A coordinated international response is deemed essential to stop this international spread of wild poliovirus and to prevent new spread with the onset of the high transmission season in May/June 2014.
The Emergency Committee emphasized that the consequences of further international spread are particularly acute today given the large number of polio-free but conflict-torn and fragile regions which have severely compromised routine immunization services and are at high risk of re-infection.
Such areas would experience extreme difficulty in mounting an effective response were wild poliovirus to be reintroduced. As much international spread occurs across land borders, WHO will continue to facilitate a coordinated regional approach to accelerate interruption of virus transmission in each epidemiologic zone.