Experts Call for Continued Efforts to Protect Children From Polio
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This is SCIENCE IN THE NEWS, in VOA Special English. I'm Bob Doughty. And I'm Faith Lapidus. This week, we tell about efforts to defeat the disease polio. Polio is spreading again after almost disappearing.
Experts say hundreds of thousands of people could get polio unless the disease is stopped in areas where it has always been present. They also say political and financial support is needed to fight polio.
Doctors advising the World Health Organization met recently in Geneva, Switzerland. They reported that Afghanistan, India, Nigeria and Pakistan have endemic polio. That means poliovirus is continually present there. The experts warned that this presence threatens almost two hundred countries now free of the virus. Polio spreads easily from person to person. It easily crosses national borders.
Conference chairman Steve Cochi said the countries with endemic polio can defeat the disease. But Doctor Cochi said political leaders need to help. He noted progress in Afghanistan after Afghan President Hamid Karzai organized a polio advisory group. Conflict in southern Afghanistan has harmed efforts to provide children with anti-polio medicine called a vaccine.
About seventy percent of the world's polio cases are in Nigeria. Almost nine hundred new cases have been reported there this year. The new cases are mainly in northern Nigeria. Problems there helped delay the goal of ending the threat from polio by two thousand seven.
False reports had been spreading in northern Nigeria. The reports said a campaign to provide polio vaccines was really a plot to harm Muslims. As a result, the vaccinations stopped for about a year. That was in two thousand three and two thousand four. Many new cases then developed.
Polio from Nigeria spread as far as Indonesia. For this reason, a special vaccination program took place in Nigeria last month.
In India, the number of polio cases has increased almost ten times compared to the same period last year. Poor areas of Uttar Pradesh Province are responsible for much of the increase. Pakistan has about the same number of cases this year as it did in the same period last year.
Yagob Yousef Al-Mazrou is an advisory committee member and represents Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Health. He says his nation is concerned about visitors spreading the virus. Millions of people arrive in Saudi Arabia each year for the Islamic religious event called the Hajj.
Doctor Al-Mazrou said his nation now requires evidence of vaccination for visitors from polio-affected countries. Children from those countries are given polio vaccines at the Saudi border. This is true even if they had been vaccinated earlier.
Robert Scott represented the Global Polio Eradication Initiative at the conference. The group has been working against polio for almost twenty years. During that period, the world polio rate has fallen by more than ninety-nine percent.
Doctor Scott placed importance on the need for the international community to provide money for vaccination campaigns. The doctor is an official of Rotary International, a service organization and Initiative member. Rotary has given millions of dollars to fight polio.
In the nineteen nineties, it seemed that modern medicine might soon defeat polio. Health officials set two thousand as a target date for the end of new cases. But before anyone could celebrate, more cases were reported. Officials re-set the date for defeating polio to two thousand five. Then they delayed again, to two thousand seven. Still, the disease keeps spreading.
But polio fighters keep striking back. As part of that effort, the World Health Organization launched a campaign in eastern Africa in September. It was the largest such attempt ever made in several countries at once. More than three million children were protected against the disease within a few days.
Prevention is important because antibiotic drugs cannot help after someone is infected. Antibiotics can kill only bacteria, not viruses.
Poliovirus spreads from person to person. Its victims often are young children. But adults also get polio. Many people are infected without knowing it. They may have just a higher than normal body temperature and pain in the throat. But polio sometimes attacks the central nervous system. In just hours, polio patients may not be able to stand or walk. And, some die.
Children who received vaccines in the recent Africa campaign live along the borders of Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia. Some roads in eastern Africa were not passable. But health workers used horses and other animals to reach the children. The workers provided each child with two drops of the vaccine by mouth.
Almost one million children received the vaccine in Ethiopia. That nation reported thirty-seven polio cases since December of two thousand four. The children live in areas that share borders with Somalia and Kenya.
Finding all the children who needed the vaccine was difficult. Recent flooding in Ethiopia and Somalia displaced many people. Somalia and northern Kenya also have many communities of people who move from place to place.
Until two thousand five, Somalia had not had any polio cases for three years. But then, two hundred fifteen people became sick with the disease. Officials say the virus came from Yemen.
Health workers attempted to reach more than one million five hundred thousand children on the Somali side of the Ethiopian border. Health conditions are poor in Somalia, which has no effective central government. Special efforts were made to include children in areas near the borders with Ethiopia and Kenya.
In northern Kenya, two hundred fifty thousand children were vaccinated. Kenya last week reported its first case of polio in more than twenty years. The patient is a three-year-old Somali girl born in a refugee camp in Kenya. She had received a polio vaccine and had never been in Somalia.
The World Health Organization says many people gave their time so that all the children could be reached. Groups of women and young people helped. Religious leaders and teachers assisted members of governmental and non-governmental agencies.
The campaign was the first of three large campaigns for the Horn of Africa that the W.H.O. hopes to launch this year. At present, however, fifty million dollars is needed to pay for vaccinations in November and December. The organization says without this money, more children will be unable to walk without help. About five to ten percent of those who lose use of their arms or legs also lose their ability to breathe without support and die.
The W.H.O. says the Global Polio Eradication Initiative is the largest public health campaign ever organized. Its main supporters include national governments and UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund. Another supporter is America's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Even with the recent cases of polio, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative has made a big difference. Eighteen years ago, one hundred twenty-five countries reported three hundred fifty thousand polio cases. This year, about one thousand two hundred people have been infected.
Wild poliovirus passes freely from person to person. It spreads through mouth fluids, waste material, and water systems. Another kind of polio is rare. That kind happens when unexpected genetic changes take place in the Oral Polio Vaccine.
The success of the first polio vaccine was announced in nineteen fifty-five. American Jonas Salk and his team proved that a vaccine made from a killed virus could kill poliovirus. The Salk vaccine was given by injection. Polio rates decreased greatly in people who had been vaccinated.
Later, Albert Sabin used a live, but weakened poliovirus to build protection against the disease. That is the kind of vaccine used for years in huge campaigns in Africa and Asia. Experts say recent changes to the vaccine are improving it.
Today, people everywhere hope that anti-polio campaigners armed with vaccine will defeat polio at last.
This program was written by Jerilyn Watson. Brianna Blake was our producer. I'm Bob Doughty. And I'm Faith Lapidus. Join us again next week for SCIENCE IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English.