Preventing a Global Pandemic

A polio vaccination clinic in Pakistan.

A polio vaccination clinic in Pakistan.

The World Health Organization (WHO) yesterday warned that the increasing number of cases of polio in Nigeria, Syria, and especially Pakistan, threatened to undermine three decades of effort to eradicate the disease. Polio, which causes paralysis, muscle atrophy, and even death, was one of the most feared diseases of the 19th and 20th centuries. But the discovery of a vaccine against polio in the 1950s, combined with a massive global effort to vaccinate the world’s population against the disease, reduced the scope of the disease from hundreds of thousands to under 1,000 today.  Efforts by the Word Health Organization and various nongovernmental organizations had the world on the verge of eradicating the disease altogether. But a recent upsurge in the number of cases—and the difficulty in vaccinating some populations—has WHO concerned once again.

The biggest concerns center on Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria. In Syria, the ability of WHO to address a polio outbreak in the contested region of Deir Ez Zour was undermined by ongoing fighting in the country’s civil war and complicated by the massive dislocation of people caused by the conflict.  In Pakistan, attacks against polio workers, often painted by militants as western spies, undermined the ability of WHO to vaccinate children, especially in the northern parts of the country.

To prevent the spread of the disease outside the country, the World Health Organization has established mandatory immunization checkpoints at Pakistan’s border crossings and airports. Anyone wishing to leave the country will have to provide proof of immunization or be immunized before leaving the country. Similar measures were also put in place in Cameroon and Syria, which are also believed to pose a risk of spreading polio.

What do you think? Can polio still be eradicated by the 2018 goal established in 2013? Why does the number of cases of polio appear to be increasing? How does the spread of polio highlight the complex nature of humanitarian crises in the contemporary era? And what might be done to prevent the disease’s spread?

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