It has been almost a year to the day since I first wrote about polio ad how we are on the verge of completely eradicating it from the planet in the same way we did smallpox in the 1970s. Unfortunately, since then, there have been a few setbacks.
Late last year there was a small outbreak in the Ukraine, thought to be as a direct result of the civil war there making it difficult to vaccinate local children. In that case it wasn’t the wild virus that was spreading but the attenuated form used in the vaccine. This isn’t a disaster and does little harm to those affected, but the infection mustn’t be allowed to sustain itself as it could mutate to a more virulent form. This is why complete immunisation of a population is so important.
Now, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has sadly reported the paralysis of two children caused by an outbreak of the wild poliovirus. This is particularly bad news as Nigeria, the last country in Africa to have polio, recently managed to go two years without a single case. To be officially declared polio free requires three years without a case.
The full machinery of the WHO anti-polio program is now swooping into action in the northern Borno region where the outbreak occurred. Working with national and local government and whatever charitable, religious and tribal organisations it is necessary to collaborate with to gain access to the remote and conflict-plagued Lake Chad area. It is vital to vaccinate every child in the area and anyone else that hasn’t already been vaccinated.
The only other countries reporting polio outbreaks in recent years are Afghanistan and Pakistan, both as a result of Taliban interference in vaccination programs there.
On the plus side, there have only been 21 cases of wild poliovirus so far this year, which puts us on track for a new record low. We are on the final push in the complete, deliberate extinction of an organism with the expectation being that the world will be completely polio free by 2019. It’s not often we can be pleased about an extinction event but this is one we can all, as a planet, look forward to.