Polio watch: Possible outbreak in West Africa

A young girl receives polio vaccination in Guinea. Sixty new cases of polio has been recorded in Nigeria this year. Photo by: Julien Harneis / CC BY-SA

In 2011, polio had been seemingly under control in West Africa. But new cases in Nigeria and the crisis across the Sahel now threaten to lead to a major outbreak.

An outbreak in the Sahel offers yet another setback to the global health community’s goal to completely eradicate polio. This effort, led by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, ONE Campaign and others, is already under threat because of Pakistan’s poor progress at addressing the disease within its borders.

In fact, the World Health Organization announced Sunday (Aug. 5) that traces of polio virus were found in sewage samples from several cities in Sindh province, Pakistan, including in Gadap Town, which has been the focus of many immunization drives.

West Africa has always been at risk of re-infection, the U.N.-backed Global Polio Eradication Initiative has said. Current conditions in the region, however, have heightened the chances of another outbreak more than ever.

The initiative has recorded 60 new cases of polio in Nigeria from January to July this year. Nigeria is one of three countries in the world where polio remains endemic. Most of the new cases were in northern Nigeria — the same area where past outbreaks in West Africa originated.

And this time, there’s a high chance the disease would spread because of the large-scale movement of people due to the drought and insecurity across West Africa. The threat of the upcoming rainy season has prompted more people to move around as well, the U.N.-backed initiative said.

There’s also the effect of dwindling funds for immunization efforts, GPEI said. A funding gap of $945 million has forced the initiative to scale back, and even cancel some immunization campaigns in 24 high-risk countries in Sahel and beyond, GPEI explained.

The initiative said it’s this last challenge that needs to be addressed immediately. Funding is needed, it said, not only to keep immunization campaigns afloat but also to support efforts of U.N. agencies and their partners to include oral polio vaccine in their humanitarian response activities.

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    Ivy Mungcal

    As senior staff writer, Ivy Mungcal contributes to several Devex publications. Her focus is on breaking news, and in particular on global aid reform and trends in the United States, Europe, the Caribbean and the Americas. Before joining Devex in 2009, Ivy produced specialized content for U.S. and U.K.-based business websites.