In the United States, polio seems like a distant memory, a throwback to the fifties. However, the debilitating disease still persists around the world, and polio cases in Pakistan have now hit a fifteen year high.
The news on Wednesday was not encouraging. The World Health Organization reports that there have been 235 polio cases reported in Pakistan so far this year. The last time Pakistan reached higher numbers was back in 1999 with 558 reported cases of polio. The country had reached its lowest number of polio cases in 2005, at only 28 patients, but the numbers rose from there to current levels.
Although polio was virtually eliminated from the United States back in the fifties, after development of the polio vaccine by Jonas Salk, the disease still persists in some pockets around the world with just over 400 cases in 2013. Pakistan is one of only three countries where polio is still found in significant numbers, along with Afghanistan and Nigeria.
Polio is not a new problem for Pakistan, which was plagued with thousands of polio cases in the eighties. They took action, promoting vaccination and reducing the number of those affected by polio significantly. However, Pakistan’s successful vaccination program has since been interrupted by militants. The militants accuse health care workers trying to administer the vaccines as being US spies, and asserting that the polio vaccine causes boys to become sterile. They attack the vaccine workers, preventing them from getting the vaccine to the vulnerable children who need it most. In all, the militants have killed about sixty health care workers and their police escorts in an effort to prevent vaccination.
The local militants have effectively blocked health care workers from entering Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal region to vaccinate children since 2012. This has allowed the disease to make a comeback in the area.
Besides problems with terrorists targeting vaccination workers, Pakistan has problems reaching remote areas to vaccinate all its citizens. Like other countries, Pakistan also has problems with misconceptions about vaccination and its effects on children.
In light of this increase in polio cases, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has vowed to fight and eradicate the disease within six months. The country plans to launch an anti-polio campaign within the month. Sharif stressed in his announcement that the future of Pakistan’s children is at stake.
Polio, or more accurately poliomyelitis, is an infectious disease caused by a virus. It is usually spread when someone consumes infected feces, often through food or water, or through saliva from someone infected with the disease. Although the disease has probably been around for thousands of years, it came to the forefront with a major outbreak in the United States in the fifties. Parents watched in horror as their once-healthy children were stricken by the disease, weakened either temporarily or permanently. Many children and adults even died during the outbreak.
Most people who contract polio have no symptoms, although they are still able to spread the disease to others. A handful of people have minor symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea, headache, fever, stiff neck, and pain in the arms and legs, recovering within a week or two. Some cases involve muscle weakness in the legs, head, neck, or diaphragm, resulting in the patient being unable to move, and lasting from a few hours to permanently. Some children and adults could even die from polio.
The persistence of polio in Pakistan serves as a reminder to parents in the United States of the importance of vaccinating their children. Meanwhile, Pakistan will try its best to reach all of its children to administer the polio vaccine.