Polio virus is spreading fast

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

polio vaccine
After several doses of the polio vaccine medicine, a child can be protected from polio for the rest of their life.

It can feel scary going to the doctor for a vaccine – medicine that strengthens your ability to fight specific viruses. However, it’s one of the most effective ways to protect yourself from highly infectious illnesses like polio, a potentially fatal disease that can cause muscle weakness, fatigue, or even paralyze you. For decades, polio was practically wiped out thanks to vaccines, but now the World Health Organization (WHO) says it’s becoming an international health crisis.

Polio commonly affects children who are 5 years of age or younger. The virus infects a person by traveling into their mouth through contaminated food and water. From there, it gets into the digestive system, multiplies, and causes symptoms such as fever, weakness, muscle stiffness, vomiting, and headaches. For every 200 people who are infected, there is one person who experiences paralysis – the inability to control your body with willpower. Of those that become paralyzed, 5-10% lose the ability to control their breathing and die within a few hours.

In 1988, there were about 350,000 cases throughout 125 countries worldwide. In that same year, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative was launched by national governments and organizations including WHO, the USA’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and UNICEF. They collectively tried to get rid of the virus and by 2013, there were only 406 cases. By early 2014, polio could only be found in 3 countries – Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan.

Now, however, there are reports of polio outbreaks in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Even more concerning is the fact that polio is also popping up in countries like Iraq, Somalia, and Syria (which has been polio free for the past 14 years). The situation is so serious, the WHO referred to it as an “extraordinary event”, which is a phrase it has only ever used once before in the organization’s history. If the virus continues spreading at this rate, it will undo the last 30 years of effort to destroy it. For now, the WHO recommends travelers get a certificate for their vaccination.

Images courtesy of RIBI Image Library on Flickr.