The World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that polio remains a worldwide public health emergency after cases nearly doubled in Afghanistan over the past year.
“We are so close to the elimination of polio, but we have to use all of our international tools to achieve this end,” Helen Rees, chair of the WHO’s international emergency committee, told Reuters.
“The ongoing situation continues to require that a public health emergency of international concern should be applied.”
The latest WHO figures show there have been 27 cases of wild polio so far in 2018, with all of them in Pakistan and Afghanistan where Taliban and other Islamist militants have undermined vaccinations by claiming immunisation is a foreign ploy to sterilise Muslim children.
The number of polio cases in Afghanistan have almost doubled over the past year, with 19 cases reported so far compared to 10 at the same time in 2017. In Pakistan, the polio situation is thought to have stalled, with eight cases reported in 2017 and 2018, respectively.
Although there has been a 99% reduction in polio cases worldwide since The Global Polio Eradication Initiative in 1988, eradicating the last 1% has proved to be far more difficult.
WHO states that if a single child remains infected, children in all countries remain at risk of contracting polio.
Rees said WHO was “very concerned” that the number of cases in Afghanistan rose from last year, and urged governments to “avoid complacency” in eradicating the paralyzing disease.
“Finishing this job remains an absolute emergency,” she added.
Polio is a highly infectious and incurable disease which mainly affects children under 5-years-old. It is caused by a virus which invades the nervous system and can cause total paralysis in a matter of hours.
According to WHO, 1 in 200 infections leads to irreversible paralysis and among those, 5% to 10% die when the virus attacks muscles that control breathing.
WHO also claims that more than 16 million people can walk today, who would otherwise have been paralysed without immunisation efforts. An additional 1.5 million childhood deaths have been prevented thanks to the systematic administration of vitamin A during polio vaccinations.
Polio epidemics have a history of sweeping the Western world. In 1916, there were over 27,000 cases of the disease and more than 6,000 deaths in the United States, with over 2,000 dead in New York City alone. In 1949, 2,720 deaths from polio occurred in the United States and 42,173 cases were reported in Canada and the United Kingdom.