Polio, the devastating disease that had been nearly vanquished due to widespread public health efforts to vaccinate children in recent decades, is now spreading to countries that had been polio-free.
The re-emergence of polio is not a surprise to experts, because although the disease has been brought under control in most countries, the presence of the disease in some regions is enough to pose a threat to the rest of the world.
"We haven't eradicated polio from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria," said Dr. Paul Offit, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "So, the virus continues to reproduce itself in the intestines of those children and to be spread from one person to the next."
So far in 2014, despite the fact that the early part of the year is the low transmission season, people in 10 countries — including Pakistan, Cameroon and Syria — have been infected with polio.
This week, the World Health Organization said the spread of polio so far in 2014 stands in stark contrast to the disease's prevalence during the same period last year. The current situation is an "extraordinary event" and a global public health threat, the WHO said in a statement.
Polio, short for poliomyelitis, is a highly contagious and incurable viral infection of the nervous system, which can be prevented by vaccination. Although some infected people recover completely, the virus causes lifelong paralysis in about one in 200 cases, and about 5 to 10 percent of these patients die when their breathing muscles become paralyzed.
Unlike diseases such as measles or smallpox, people infected with polio may not show any symptoms, or may show only mild symptoms, so they may not even realize they are infected even though they are transmitting the virus to other people, Offit said.
"Polio can be asymptomatic, so when you see paralysis, it's really the tip of the iceberg," Offit said.
The last remaining places
In the 1980s, the polio virus killed or paralyzed about 350,000 people worldwide each year, but now this number has been greatly reduced, with 407 cases reported in 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The United States was declared polio-free in 1979, meaning there were no reported cases in the previous three years. India — one of the countries where the eradication of polio has been the most challenging — along with 10 other Asian countries, were declared polio-free just recently, in March 2014, according to the CDC.
Written By: Bahar Gholipour
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