Why is polio a public health emergency?

A Syrian child receives a polio vaccination Several target dates for eradicating polio worldwide have been missed

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At first glance it might seem odd for the spread of polio to be declared an international public health emergency.

There have been 68 recorded cases of wild poliovirus so far in 2014. Last year there were 417 cases.

Contrast that with the one million children under five who die from pneumonia each year or the 750,000 who die from diarrhoeal disease.

Like polio, most of those deaths are vaccine-preventable.

The only previous threat to have been accorded the same status by the WHO was the H1N1 swine flu pandemic in 2009.

The reason for the WHO declaration is the risk that the goal of polio eradication may be not be achieved.


Billions of dollars are spent each year on polio immunisation and the number of cases has plummeted since the late 1980s.

There have been important milestones: it is more than three years since the last polio case in India.

While the wild poliovirus continues to circulate, mass immunisations must continue in every country in the world.

If the disease was wiped out - like smallpox in the 1970s - then the money spent on polio immunisation could eventually be targeted elsewhere.

The declaration of a "public health emergency of international concern" is a measure of the potential threat to the eradication efforts.

The WHO wants all residents and long-term visitors to Pakistan, Cameroon and Syria to have been recently immunised and carry a certificate of vaccination.


All three countries have spread the virus across their borders this year during what is usually a low transmission season.

The virus has a higher risk of transmission during May and June.

There are several other countries infected with wild poliovirus which have not exported the disease - Nigeria, Afghanistan, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Iraq and Somalia.

The virus - which is shed in faeces - can spread rapidly from just one infected individual.

Most people who carry the virus show no symptoms, making it a very difficult disease to wipe out.

That is why it is so important that polio immunisation levels are maintained while the virus continues to circulate.

Polio eradication would be a huge achievement. A target date of 2018 has been set - but previous deadlines have come and gone.

The next six months may show whether that goal really is a realistic target.

Fergus Walsh Article written by Fergus Walsh Fergus Walsh Medical correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    Some confusion here between polio & tuberculosis vaccinations. TB is coming in unchecked from the subcontinent & eastern Europe with the worrying prospect of it becoming antibiotic resistant. Polio would be beaten already but for muslim misinformation & the murder of vaccination teams. Travel from areas where public health & sexual hygiene are poor should require health checks & vaccine certs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    #20 I'm 36 and my 30 year old sister didn't get one. That was Scotland though. Maybe they continued for longer in England....? It wasn't a great vaccine to be honest. About 50% effective and quite old fashioned. These days vaccines are far ahead of 'boiling up a bit of the pathogen'. Using GM tech to synthesise a small part of the pathogen is far safer and usually more effective.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    17. Peter_Sym

    I was at school about 8 years ago when we were all still given BCGs...

    So 20 years is a bit far out and from what I can tell, I wasn't the last year to get them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    'Like flouride is safe, in between arsenic and lead on the poison scale, but is safe, oh okay. '

    And an element that is used for poison gas is also routinely used in swimming pools and is part of the commonest flavouring used in food.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.


    Spot on. Back in the mid-70's, I also had a classmate who had polio. She required heavy metal braces and crutches to walk, was tired most of the time, and spent a lot of time out of school due to pain and respiratory infections. She put on a brave face, but her quality of life was poor. People who refuse to vaccinate risk their children becoming permanently dependent on others.


Comments 5 of 22



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