WHO holds emergency meeting as polio strikes anew

A child in Pakistan receives polio vaccination drops in January 2010. The World Health Organization is holding an emergency meeting about reported outbreaks in regions previously declared polio-free. Photo by: Gates Foundation / CC BY-NC-ND

Will polio again become a public health emergency?

This is what the World Health Organization is currently trying to figure out as it meets with the members of its International Health Regulations Emergency Committee this week. The meeting comes following a series of unexpected wild poliovirus transmissions first quarter of 2014, and re-infections in countries and regions previously declared polio-free, including in the Middle East, where WHO is currently trying to contain an outbreak.

For instance Syria, which had been polio-free since 1999, reported new cases last year.

The international community has been mobilizing resources and gearing toward the elimination of the virus by 2018. Many are optimistic this can be done, given that polio is now only endemic in three countries: Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan. Polio cases in the first two countries went down 62 percent and 57 percent, respectively, in 2013, but Pakistan continues to see an upsurge in cases, largely due to cultural beliefs and restrictions, and attacks against health workers, although Islamic groups and several political leaders in the country have in the past few months voiced support toward polio immunization.

But the re-emergence of the virus in other countries — in many cases traced back to Pakistan — have raised concerns within the health body, and now WHO Director-General Margaret Chan is seeking the advice of health experts from around the world on whether immediate actions are needed.

The committee gives its views on whether public health events are of international concern, and provides "temporary recommendations" that need to be taken to halt its spread. The final decision however rests on the WHO chief.

WHO defines public health emergencies of international concern as situations that are "serious, sudden, unusual or unexpected," can have implications cross border, and that which requires "immediate international action." Discussions are still ongoing, but a spokesperson declined to comment on the status of the talks.

The organization will inform the public once the meeting is over, although there have been suggestions that the committee may impose travel restrictions to Pakistan, where five new cases of polio were reported on Tuesday.

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About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.