India has announced polio eradication after three years since its last reported case, a landmark in the global battle against the disease.
It is seen as confirmation of one of India’s biggest public health successes, achieved through a massive and sustained immunization program.
India’s health minister hailed it as a “monumental milestone”.
In 2012 the World Health Organization (WHO) removed India from the list of polio-endemic countries. Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria remain on it.
The list refers to countries in which the virus is circulating freely and the transmission of the infectious disease has not been stopped.
Despite India’s success, health experts fear a resurgence of polio in other parts of the world.
“This monumental milestone was possible due to unwavering political will at the highest level, commitment of adequate financial resources, technological innovation … and the tireless efforts of millions of workers including more than 23 lakh (2.3 million) vaccinators,” Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad told reporters.
India is marking three years since its last reported polio case
The WHO is expected to formally certify India’s polio-free status next month after testing its last samples.
“India has now set other important public health goals as a result of the confidence that the country has got from the successful eradication of polio,” the WHO’s Hamid Jafari told AFP news agency, citing a new goal to eradicate measles.
Only one case of polio was recorded in India in 2011, down from 741 in 2009. It came from the eastern state of West Bengal in 2011 when an 18-month-old girl was found to have contracted the disease.
After the eradication of smallpox in 1980, polio is the second disease in India that has been eliminated through immunization.
Nearly 2.3 million volunteers vaccinate some 170 million children under five years of age in India during every round of immunization.
Polio is capable of causing crippling disability or death within hours. It plagued societies in ancient times – and was present in more than 100 countries even in the 1980s, when it left 350,000 people paralyzed each year.
Global cases have decreased since then as part of a mass eradication program – to 372 in 2013.
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The WHO has confirmed 10 cases of polio in Syria – the first outbreak in the country in 14 years.
The WHO says a further 12 cases are still being investigated. Most of the 22 people who have been tested are babies and toddlers.
Before Syria’s civil war began in 2011, some 95% of children were vaccinated against the disease.
The UN now estimates 500,000 children have not been immunized.
The WHO said the suspected outbreak centres on the eastern province of Deir Ezzor.
The highly contagious disease is most often spread by consuming food or liquid contaminated with faeces.
“Of course this is a communicable disease, with population movements it can travel to other areas. So the risk is high for [its] spread across the region,” the Reuters news agency quotes WHO spokesman Oliver Rosenbauer as saying in Geneva.
“Immunizations have started in that area,” he said.
The WHO has confirmed 10 cases of polio in Syria
There are more than 100,000 children, all under age five, now at risk of polio in Deir Ezzor province alone, which has been caught in fierce battles between Syrian government forces and opposition fighters.
The city of Deir Ezzor remains partially controlled by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, while the countryside is in the hands of the opposition.
More than 4 million Syrians have been displaced internally by the conflict and generally live in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions.
A further two million have fled the country, many of them living in refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Egypt.
The WHO has already reported increases in cases of measles, typhoid and hepatitis A.
Since the first suspected polio case was reported 10 days ago, Syria’s Health Ministry has begun an immunization drive and aid agencies have begun developing emergency immunization plans at Syrian refugee camps.
Oliver Rosenbauer said most victims were under two years old and were thought never to have been vaccinated against polio.
“The next step will be to look genetically at these isolated viruses and where they came from. That should give some clarity on the origin,” he said.
Polio has been largely eradicated in developed countries but remains endemic in Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
There is no known cure, though a series of vaccinations can confer immunity.
Young children are particularly susceptible to paralytic polio, the most serious form of the disease.
What is polio?
- Polio (poliomyelitis) mainly affects children aged under five
- It is a highly infectious disease caused by a virus which invades the nervous system
- Symptoms include fever, fatigue, headache, vomiting, stiffness in the neck, and limb pain
- One in 200 infections leads to irreversible paralysis
- Between 5-10% of those who suffer paralysis die because their breathing muscles are immobilized
- Cases have fallen by over 99% since 1988, from around 350,000 then to 223 in 2012
- However polio remains endemic in Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan
Source: World Health Organization
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