WHO: Polio outbreak is an international emergency

WHO: Polio outbreak is an international emergency

Public health experts fear a deadly virus is just a plane ride away from the United States. 

The spread of polio in the Middle East and Africa has the World Health Organization issuing a dire warning.

Dr. Jeffrey Jahre, chief of infectious diseases at St. Luke's University Health Network, said polio is once again on the march.

"People have the idea that polio has been eradicated, and it has led to a sense of complacency and that's never good," he described.

Vaccines eliminated the virus from the U.S. back in 1979, but over the last two years, the cases worldwide have started to spike. 

Just this week, the World Health Organization declared an international health emergency saying the spread of polio to new countries could grow in the next few months, and unravel a nearly three-decade effort to eradicate the crippling disease.

"In the first few months of this year we have three times as many polio cases being reported worldwide as it was a year ago," Jahre explained.  "That is really striking."

According to the World Health Organization, currently there are polio outbreaks across 10 countries. Experts said Pakistan, Syria and Cameroon are among them, but these three countries have allowed the virus to escape beyond their borders.

"We are now seeing polio being exported to other countries which in turn can export it to still other areas that have very poor public health infrastructure."

That's why the WHO is recommending residents of those three countries be vaccinated before traveling abroad, obtain a certificate proving they have been vaccinated for polio, and anyone heading there should make sure they are immunized.

The WHO warning has many local Syrian-American's concerned about visiting the country.

"I have family members that keep going back and forth, parent, brothers, sisters," shared Samir Georges.

An on-going civil war in Syria complicates efforts to contain the virus.

"I hope they really take the responsibility and stay right up to the date with all vaccines," Georges added.

Polio usually strikes children under 5.  The virus can cause paralysis, even death and is often spread through infected water. Health experts say everyone should take this rare international public health emergency very seriously.

"A problem that may seem very distant can become very near, very quickly," said Jahre.

The spike in polio cases right now is during the low transmission season.  Officials worry cases could jump even higher as the weather becomes warmer and wetter in the coming months.

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