Polio outbreaks in Africa and Asia
The New York Times Health section had an alarming report today; public health officials with the World Health Organization have noted an outbreak of polio in Pakistan and in several African countries including Somalia and Kenya. Currently, the region has had approximately 50% more cases, in comparison to the same time in 2012, leading the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to list the region in eastern Africa at Level 2-Alert, advising travelers to practice heightened precautions. In addition to recommending travelers to this region of the world make sure to be up to date with their polio vaccine, they are also recommending travelers avoid any unpasteurized dairy as well as all public water sources.
The outbreaks are likely due to heightened political tensions in both of the regions. The outbreak in Pakistan is due to a regional warlord’s ban on vaccination 14 months ago, in retaliation to US drone strikes against Taliban insurgents. The outbreak in Somalia is due to the movement of refugees retreating from fighting between militias and government troops. The NYT article notes that this outbreak is particularly frustrating to public health officials in the region, as there is actually very little opposition to receiving the vaccine by the public at large there. Opposition to vaccination is actually coming from many of the tribal militias, who see door-to-door campaigns as undercutting their political legitimacy to rule in these areas. In Pakistan however, opposition is frequently directed at the vaccine itself, which has been rumored to cause sterility, or to contain pork products in its formulation.
Prior to this significant outbreak, public health organizations have been very optimistic about the likelihood that polio would be eradicated soon, and have a concrete plan to completely eliminate all wild cases of the virus within the next 5 years at a cost of $5.5 billion. While this outbreak does not put polio-free regions of the world including the western hemisphere at any significant risk, it does emphatically illustrate that eradication will not be straightforward.