Officials Declare Overseas Polio as Public Health Emergency
By Terri Moon Cronk
DoD News, Defense Media Activity
WASHINGTON, July 24, 2014 A resurgence of polio virus in 10 overseas countries has prompted the World Health Organization to declare the spread of the wild virus as a public health emergency of international concern, the director of the Military Vaccine Agency, Vaccine Healthcare Centers Networks, said yesterday.
Polio was eradicated in the United States decades ago, but Army Col. (Dr.) Margaret Yacovone told DoD News that while strides were being made in overseas countries, Cameroon, New Guinea, Syria and Pakistan are classified as exporting wild polio.
The other six countries -- Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Iraq, Israel, Somalia and Nigeria -- have “serious, ongoing polio infections,” she said.
“Although these countries are small, the risk of spreading polio to other countries that are polio-free is extremely high due to the ease and frequency of international travel,” Yacovone said.
When polio outbreaks are classified as endemic in a country, it is called wild polio, she explained.
Polio is a viral infectious disease, and while 90 percent of those infected have no symptoms, about 1 percent have a very severe illness leading to muscle weakness, difficulty breathing, paralysis, and sometimes death, Yacovone explained.
“Humans are the only known carriers of polio,” she said. “Polio enters the environment in the feces of someone who's infected. The polio virus is then transmitted to other people, typically by hands, food or water contaminated with fecal matter or through direct contact with the infected person's saliva.”
The virus infects cells of the mouth, nose and throat and then sheds itself in the feces of an infected person. People carrying the polio virus can spread the virus for weeks in their feces, Yacovone said.
“It spreads particularly quickly amongst young children who are not toilet trained,” she noted. “Children can contract the polio virus by touching contaminated objects and putting their hands in their mouths.”
Polio is so contagious that anyone living with a recently infected person is likely to become infected, Yacovone said.
“We don’t want to bring polio back into the United States,” she added, noting that some groups in this country are opposed to vaccinations. “All it will take is someone to bring it back here and infect a community that is unvaccinated,” she emphasized. “Even one case would one would be devastating.”
It’s a safe assumption that anyone who was born and raised in the United States has had routine polio vaccinations Yacovone said, explaining that vaccinations begin at 2 months of age and continue to age 6. The one-time adult booster is given to service members because of their worldwide travel, which often includes countries where polio exists.
“It’s a safe way to boost the immune system,” she explained.
The WHO recently published guidelines to help protect the infected countries from further spread of the disease, Yacovone said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention added recommendations to stop the spread of the polio virus in the 10 affected countries.
The CDC also applied the recommendations to U.S. travelers going out of the country.
“To ensure all U.S. travelers have freedom of movement to and from countries, and to be prepared for any vaccine requirements, [CDC] recommends any traveler in an infected country for greater than four weeks to get a polio booster within 12 months of exiting the country,” Yacovone said.
And tracking such activity is even more comprehensive than just getting the booster, she added. “The boosters have to be documented on the international certificate of vaccination –- the old yellow shot card,” she noted. Yacovone said the most important message to get across, particularly to those in infected countries, is “Get vaccinated.”
(Follow Terri Moon Cronk on Twitter: @MoonCronkDoD)