Europe at 'polio risk' from Syria

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Europe could be at risk from polio following a recent outbreak in Syria, infectious disease experts say.

In the Lancet journal, two doctors in Germany say the cases in Syria - which had been free of wild poliovirus since 1999 - could endanger nearby regions.

They say because only one in 200 people infected develops paralysis it could take a year of "silent transmission" before an outbreak is detected.

In that time hundreds of individuals could be carrying the infection.

Prof Martin Eichner, of the University of Tubingen and Stefan Brockmann, of Reutlingen Regional Public Health Office explain that most European countries use inactivated polio vaccine (IPV) rather than the live oral polio vaccine (OPV), because the latter can, in rare cases, lead to cases of acute flaccid paralysis, the main symptom of polio.


Whilst IPV is highly effective at preventing polio disease, it does not give the same level of protection against the virus as the oral drops, so vaccination coverage needs to be very high. The doctors say that countries with low coverage such as Austria (83%) and Ukraine (74%) risk a sustained outbreak should the virus be introduced via refugees fleeing Syria. Polio vaccine coverage in the UK is at 95%.

The doctors said Israel could also pose a potential polio threat.

Prof Eichner told me: "Wild poliovirus has also been found in sewage in Israel and from samples taken from some symptom-free individuals since February 2013. Although there have been no cases of polio in Israel, tourists could risk bringing the infection to other countries."

Dr Benjamin Neuman, a virologist at the University of Reading, said: "The Syrian outbreak puts Europe at risk because of the way we give vaccines. In parts of the world where it is still possible to catch a wild strain of poliovirus, children are usually vaccinated with a live but genetically weakened poliovirus which gives excellent protection but has a tiny risk of changing back to the more dangerous form.

"However, in parts of the world where polio has been eradicated, like the UK, children are usually given a killed vaccine. It doesn't protect quite as well but it cannot mutate, so it protects reasonably well while preventing polio from being accidentally reintroduced to a country.

He added: "Vaccination is never perfect, so despite being vaccinated, a small percentage of children in the UK would be at risk of contracting polio if they were exposed to the virus. Until the virus is completely extinct, it is essential that we continue to vaccinate our children."

The Department of Health Director of Immunisation, Professor David Salisbury said:

"The UK is well defended against the possibility of importation of polio from outbreaks such as the present one in Syria. Our population has very high coverage of polio vaccination with more than 95% of young children being vaccinated. We have WHO-approved surveillance in place so we can pick up polio if it does start to circulate in the UK."

'Invisible enemy'

Most of the 22 cases of polio-like paralysis in Syria (10 of which have been confirmed as wild poliovirus type) are among children below the age of two who were unimmunised or who had not received all three doses of vaccine.

The World Health Organization warned last month there was a high risk of polio spreading internationally because of the movement of refugees across the region and low immunisation rates in Syria.

Prof Eichner said: "The WHO wants to get rid of polio completely and had got pretty close until recent outbreaks. The fact that most of those infected do not display symptoms but can still spread the disease makes it a very hard virus to get rid of as it is like fighting an invisible enemy."

So far this year 322 cases of wild poliovirus have been confirmed, more than half of them in Somalia.

Fergus Walsh, Medical correspondent Article written by Fergus Walsh Fergus Walsh Medical correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    No, not more vaccination. Any excuse to do mass vaccination in the UK making millions for the pharmaceutical companies whilst breaking down the body's natural immune system. We have had too many dodgy vaccines put into us. This is scaremongering yet again. Vaccines contain mercury and aluminium which wrecks the gut.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Just seems like a load of propaganda, those who have looked into this know that most Polio comes from the vaccine itself, but they give it a different name to make it seem OK, even though vaccine-induced Polio is twice as deadly as normal Polio. The Polio is Syria is no doubt from the vaccine, but it's useful for pro-vaccine marketing to pretend that it's not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    What was " racist, sexist, homophobic, sexually explicit, abusive or otherwise objectionable" about this?

    Ah, another golden opportunity the BBC provides for the knee jerk xenophobes to vent their prejudices about foreigners, the EU and any other scapegoats they blame for their failures in life.

    It seems the BBC is happy to provide an open platform for racists and xenophobes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 334.

    I’m not paranoid & don’t believe in conspiracy theories, but suspect the Polio might have been intentionally introduced to Syria by the US with the aim of infecting the UK. They can then ‘target infect’ individuals who the NSA identify as a threat (exposing surveillance techniques etc) without suspicion.

  • rate this

    Comment number 298.


    The two biggest selling vaccines are the Flu Vaccine and HPV, both sell over $1 Billion per year.

    However most the money from vaccines comes from the lifelong complications which arrive afterwards, such as Diabetes Type 1, MS, Lupus, Epilepsy, Asthma, Eczema, Non Hodgkin Lymphoma, Muscle-Wasting Diseases etc, if the pharmaceuticals stopped making vaccines their sales for drop like lead


Comments 5 of 456



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