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article imageOp-Ed: Polio virus could spread beyond Syrian borders — Is Europe next?

By Karen Graham     Nov 12, 2013 in Health
The global initiative to see polio eradicated by the year 2018 has received a punishing blow. The wild strain of the polio virus seen in Syria can infect someone without their becoming ill, making "silent transmission" a devastating possibility.
The polio virus that has crippled over 13 children in Syria has been genetically linked to a strain originating in Pakistan, according to the World Health Organization on Tuesday. Genetic sequencing confirmed the strain of Pakistani origin is the same as the polio virus strain found in sewage in Egypt, Israel and Palestinian territories earlier this year.
This information has led many health officials to issue warnings of the possibility of the virus spreading beyond Syria's borders, and this could be devastating. Added to this issue is the problems facing health workers in Sudan this past week.
Sudan polio vaccinations blocked
The United Nations Humanitarian chief, John Ging said the vaccination of over 165,000 children in the South Kordofan and Blue Nile states has been blocked because of bickering, filibustering and disputes between the government and the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement- North (SPLM-N).
The two states border South Sudan, which won its independence from Sudan in 2011 after years of civil war. As a result of the constant disputes between the government and SPLM-N forces, there has been no access into the region for food or supplies in the last 18 months, leaving more than 800,000 people to fend for themselves.
Enlarged map showing location of South Kordofan and Blue Nile states on the border with South Sudan.
Enlarged map showing location of South Kordofan and Blue Nile states on the border with South Sudan.
According to Mr. Ging, a U.N. Security Council resolution giving the health workers access to vaccinate the children in the two states has been violated, The vaccinations were to be given from Nov. 5 through Nov. 12, 2013. Mr. Ging added, "We, the international community, have failed the people of South Kordofan and Blue Nile."
Wild polio virus could spread to other countries
With the precarious situation created by Syria's ongoing conflict and the inability to vaccinate children in the Sudan, the WHO and other health organizations are in a quandary, and the chance to eradicate polio from the globe is fast slipping by.
Now two German doctors have posed another scenario for us to ponder. In a paper printed in the Lancet Journal, they say the threat of polio spreading to countries in Europe is very real. They back this supposition up with some interesting facts.
Prof Martin Eichner, with the University of Tubingen and Stefan Brockmann, of the Reutlingen Regional Public Health Office, say the reason for their concern has to do with the type of vaccine being used in Europe and in countries where polio is still a threat.
Most European countries use an inactivated polio vaccine (IPV), and not the live oral polio vaccine (OPV). The reason for the use of the IPV is because the latter vaccine can, in rare cases, cause acute flaccid paralysis, the main symptom of polio.
While the IPV vaccine is effective in preventing polio, it does not offer the same protection as the OPV vaccine. So for this reason, coverage with a vaccine needs to be very high. There are today several countries where coverage is not adequate, like Austria, with only 83 percent of the population covered, and Ukraine, with only 74 percent coverage. In contrast, the U.K. has better than 95 percent coverage.
The biggest risk, according to the Lancet article, is the number of refugees fleeing from the hostilities in Syria. The polio virus is a wild strain, and it can take almost a year in many cases before symptoms appear. In the meantime, the victim is a "carrier" of the virus, capable of spreading polio without knowing they are a carrier.
This same scenario would hold true for people visiting Israel, Pakistan and other regions where the wild polio strain is still rampant. Visitors could easily carry the virus back to their own countries.
It is almost incomprehensible to imagine the world under another outbreak of polio. But as long as cultural differences, religious beliefs and hostilities dominate over common sense and the health care needs of the populace, it will be something we will continually have to battle.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about Syria, Polio, oral polio vaccine, Paralysis, Outbreaks
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